Still worth reading

Times
The front page of the Sunday paper a few weeks ago renewed my commitment to the discipline of newspaper reading. It’s not that I gave it up, but occasionally I toy with the lazy notion of just reading a few headlines on-line or settling for a brief radio newscast. It doesn’t help that some days’ news just isn’t that compelling, not something we tolerate easily in our era of fleeting focus.

Then along comes a front page loaded with stories each packing their own particular punch. If I wasn’t reading it on a Kindle, it would have been a newspaper so charged with importance and interest that you couldn’t put it down.

There was a story about governors across the country proposing the unthinkable: raising taxes. “It’s based on common sense and good government,” said the Republican governor of Michigan. If not for increased revenues, the governors argue, there will be insufficient revenue for bridges, schools, highways and other crucial long-term projects. It’s hard to argue against the importance of such funding, but most of the current proposals will increase sales and gas taxes as opposed to income taxes. As was only given passing notice in the article, these higher consumption-based taxes place a far greater burden on people with lower incomes since a larger share of their income goes toward purchasing gas and other taxable items.

In other words, it’s good to fund important government projects, but wouldn’t we want to do that equitably? The newspaper story provided a helpful background for which to encourage such a conversation.

Another story brought a human touch to ongoing speculation that there might be modification of the Catholic Church’s stance toward members who are divorced and re-married. Readers were introduced to two people who fall into that category: one who goes to Mass weekly but remains in the pew when others go forward to receive communion, and another who takes communion despite what the Church asks in such situations. “There’s a lot of divorced Catholics out there, and have we let these people wander without reaching out to them?” asked a former official of the U.S. Bishops’ conference. “Jesus wants us to look after the sheep, no matter what.” That coincides with recent statements of Pope Francis as well.

The article spoke rather constructively and positively about the annulment process, but noted that merely 15 percent of divorced American Catholics seek to annul their marriages. Reasons include confusion or misunderstanding as to what an annulment means; there is the matter of cost, again something the pope addressed recently; and a lengthy process that can often be far too burdensome. (In this regard, the Diocese of La Crosse is quite efficient and compassionate in its handling of annulments. What we usually accomplish in a matter of months can take a year or more in other dioceses.)

The reporter interviewed people, however, who felt judged and ostracized by pastors and parishioners. Women especially struggle with the interrogation some perceive in the annulment process, especially when it was the abuse or adultery of their husbands that led to a divorce. “You’re dealing with an abusive husband who is male, and then you have to go to a male to get the annulment, and a bunch of males sit at a table and decide whether your decision was correct,” one woman said. The article provided sound information along with honest human consequence in raising the tough questions.

Near the bottom of the front page was maybe the most interesting, and distressing, story of the bunch. Out of Zambia, it explained the value of mosquito nets in preventing malaria. It seems simple enough: if people can sleep surrounded by these nets, mosquitos carrying the dread disease won’t bite them and they won’t contract the illness. To that end, hundreds of millions of nets have been distributed across Africa in recent years. But, as with most things in modern life, even something as simple as a mosquito net is far too complicated.

The nets “arrive by truckload in poor, waterside communities where people have been trying to scrape by with substandard fishing gear for as long as anyone can remember,” the article states. “All of a sudden, there are light, soft, surprisingly strong nets — for free. Many people said it would be foolish not to use them for fishing.”

There are at least three problems with that. First, the nets, meant to block mosquitos, are a fine mesh that trap fish and other sea life in the early stages of development putting at risk already stressed fish populations. Second, the nets are coated with an insecticide meant to inhibit the flying malaria-carrying pests that now pollute the lakes and rivers, threaten the fish and the people who eat them. And, of course, the other troubling aspect of this is the high incidence of malaria because the nets aren’t being used for their intended purpose.

None of the “experts” quoted in the story had solutions to the dilemma. Without the mosquito nets, the people contract malaria. Without nets for catching fish they go hungry.

Clearly none of this news is particularly cheerful, but it keeps one rooted in the complicated reality of our world, which is a rather important trait of discipleship. TL

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