Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, made an appearance today on Vatican Radio to discuss efforts by the G-20 nations to address the growing problem of rising food prices around the world.  Jayabalan discusses how natural events and bad policy are both contributing to the sharp rise in prices seen of late.  Listen to the full interview using the audio player below:

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Budget battles have heated up recently throughout the United States, and President Obama’s budget proposal has not been exempted from the intense discussion.

The current proposal by the President pushes our national debt to $15.476 trillion or 102.6 percent of our GDP.  Furthermore, there are no cuts to entitlement spending which consist of 57 percent of the spending in the budget, or approximately $2.14 trillion.

While it is imperative to our economic recovery to have a budget that is fiscally sound, it is also crucial to have a budget that is morally sound.  There are critics to cutting entitlement programs, however, a fiscally sound budget which may require a look at entitlement cuts and reforms, will help the poor and vulnerable.  If we continue the spending trend the United States has been fostering under previous budgets than economic recovery will be hampered which means less job opportunities.  The poor and vulnerable will be dependent on entitlement programs, violating the principle of subsidarity.

A fiscally responsible budget also abides by stewardship principles.  To be good stewards we must look long term and create a strong and stable prospering economy not just now, but for our children and grandchildren.  Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula addresses this issue in his blog post:

…we are leaving our debts to future generations. We are asking them to pay the principal and the interest on our debt with their labors. This is akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us, and it will last long after we have gone to meet our Maker. By law, one can reject an inheritance if has more liabilities than assets, but a citizen cannot reject public debt if he wants to remain a citizen…

Rev. Sirico also articulates the necessity of morality in the Federal Budget during his recent interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s World Over.

Let’s start with Heritage Foundation’s interview of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin: “We’re broke,” he says.

Religious leaders offer sanctuary to senators

Two Illinois clergymen offered sanctuary Friday to Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin in an effort to stop an anti-union bill. But neither said any renegade lawmakers had taken them up on their offer of hospitality. The Rev. Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe joined several Wisconsin faith leaders in speaking out on the behalf of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and praising the missing Democrats.

Wisconsin Catholic bishops urge protection of workers’ rights as protests surge

Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they’ve unequivocally reiterated the importance of protecting worker’s rights in light of the Church’s social doctrine. Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The archbishop then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II’s observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity. “The bishops are very careful – it’s a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn’t follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”

Faith leaders voice support for unions

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to Walker on Wednesday articulating her church’s support of unions and collective bargaining. Madison Rabbi Jonathan Biatch invoked biblical and Talmudic passages that support workers’ rights during a candlelight vigil and training event for union members in Madison. And on Thursday, the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement thanking Listecki for taking a stand and calling on Wisconsin officials to “suspend (their) attacks on public workers.”

Wisconsin Is the New France: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome

There is a fundamental and negative cultural shift when individuals move from thinking they should keep the fruits of their own labor to believing they’re entitled to the fruits of others’ labor. Shutting down government for the sake of benefits you didn’t pay for, and health insurance you didn’t purchase, represents an entitlement mentality run amok. Here’s a sobering thought: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome is in its infancy. Wisconsin is paralyzed because of one reform impacting a small minority of its citizens. What happens when the axe falls—as, sooner or later, it must—on Social Security? On Medicare? If the unions can mobilize tens of thousands in Madison, can the entitlement culture muster millions in Washington?

On Feb. 17, Rev. Robert Sirico was a guest on EWTN’s World Over program hosted by Raymond Arroyo. Rev. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, discussed the morality of federal budget making, social networking and the Catholic Church, and Live Acton vs. Planned Parenthood.

Rev. Sirico’s two segments begin at the 10:30 and 37:16 marks.

Arroyo is also joined by guests Rep. Chris Smith and Dr. Andrew Abela.

Following up on this week’s musings related to the local church, I’ve posted some thoughts on the idea of “The Church as Social Network” over at Mere Comments.

Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s World Over program, has invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the show tonight (Thurs., Feb. 17, 8 p.m. Eastern) to discuss the federal budget as a “moral document” and the mounting federal deficit. And no doubt the conversation will explore other important faith and policy issues of the day.

Check your local cable listings or tune in live online here.

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
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Oftentimes the terms liberty and freedom are used interchangeably, the former derived from the Latin root the latter the German.

But John Mark Reynolds of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University uses the terms to distinguish between them and the possible futures for Egypt: “Freedom gives the right to choose, but the liberated choose wisely.”

Normally I would select some choice excerpts, but the entire thing is excellent so be sure to read it at the Scriptorium, “Liberty Not Just Freedom For Egypt.”

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, published a new column today in the Detroit News:

‘Social Justice’ is a complex concept

Rev. Robert Sirico: Faith and Policy

A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that “Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.” He went on to say that “there can be no disagreement” that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has “concentrated” money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.

What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of “social justice” that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.

He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.

A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.

The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.

What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.

We’re seeing the train wreck of the “social assistance state” in Europe.

In his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” I call that prophetic.

Let’s also be clear that the Church’s teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.

The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.

So let’s drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church’s understanding of social justice.

A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.