Take no chances

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Catholics should stop gambling.

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St. Agatha’s Catholic Church in Milton, Massachusetts is sometimes referred to as the “Caesar's Palace of Massachusetts bingo.” On Monday nights as many as 400 people show up to compete for the $3,000 top prize. In 2009 St. Agatha's and the other licensed bingo hall in Milton generated more than $1.2 million in gross revenue, a small but significant portion of the $44 million of bingo revenue generated in all of Massachusetts that same year. The proceeds from St. Agatha's will go to support the St. Agatha School for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Bingo is the school’s largest fundraiser.

Like St. Agatha’s, many Catholic parishes have become dependent on gambling revenue from bingo and raffle tickets in light of dwindling numbers of parishioners and lower overall giving. It is not uncommon for a parish to fund its building project or a youth group event with a raffle, sometimes with exorbitant ticket prices, such as $50 tickets that offer the chance to win anything from a flat screen TV to a new Mustang convertible.

Sure, the funds from gambling at church are for a good cause, but there’s something wrong with this picture. In the words of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, “gambling, whatever its benefits, [comes] with undeniable and significant costs.”

Ironically, while voicing opposition to the expansion of casino gambling in Massachusetts, the church in Massachusetts was also sponsoring its own gambling houses. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church at the time was affiliated with close to one third of the bingo parlors in the state.

In light of the conference’s arguments against casinos, I think it is important to reevaluate what kind of example the church is setting by sponsoring (and encouraging) its own form of gambling.

The Catholic Church has a complex history in its moral thinking about gambling. Although the Bible does not forbid it outright, early Christians were largely opposed, with some of the earliest accounts of canon law forbidding games of chance under the pain of excommunication. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade clerics to even be present at games where any betting was taking place.

St. Francis de Sales in the 16th century addressed gambling in his Introduction to the Devout Life under the title, “Of Forbidden Amusements”: “Dice, cards, and the like games of hazard, are not merely dangerous amusements, like dancing, but they are plainly bad and harmful, and therefore they are forbidden by the civil as by the ecclesiastical law.”

Today, however, gambling is generally considered a harmless pastime, dangerous only when indulged excessively, as reflected by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement.”

This is also the argument the Massachusetts Catholic Conference made in its legislative testimony: “The Roman Catholic Church is not opposed to gambling,” wrote the conference, citing the above passage from the catechism. But in light of the many dangers associated with gambling such as abuse, victimization of the poor, addiction, and broken families, the conference argued that “the state should not depend on gambling for resources to pay for needed services.”

Neither should a parish. The problems with gambling in general apply to church-sponsored gambling as well, but there are several more.

Gambling is not an efficient way to raise money. Lotteries, for example, are extraordinarily inefficient. Administrative costs, marketing and advertising, and prize payouts mean lotteries bring in significantly less revenue than a broad-based tax. Nationally, an average of 71 percent of lottery revenue goes back into prizes. Parish-sponsored bingo may be even less efficient at generating profit. According to statistics on charitable bingo in Michigan, 77 percent of net revenue went back into prizes. Parishioners who play “for a good cause” might be surprised how little is actually going back to the church.

Gambling doesn’t generate a significant percentage of income. State lotteries still only bring in an average of 2 percent of a state’s budget. Even though bingo is often the biggest fundraiser for a given parish, as it is at St. Agatha’s, the overall revenue earned is only a small percentage of what the church or school needs to function. Moreover, the revenue earned through bingo is an unreliable source of income. Most parish-sponsored bingo halls have lost money during the recent recession as attendance plummeted. As a result, parishes have had to seek out other sources of income to fill the void left by bingo.

Gambling revenues are regressive, unfairly distributing financial burdens to the poor while benefitting the rich. While both poor and rich gamble, the “recreational cost” is a much higher percentage of the poor’s overall income than it is for the rich. In Massachusetts welfare dollars can be used for lottery tickets, which is especially problematic for poor people who trying to dig themselves out of a hole on the off chance of a big win. Church-sponsored gambling is also regressive, but more importantly, it also potentially preys on the poor who may not have the money to spend on Friday night bingo, yet still play. One member of a parish that had to shut down its bingo operation recalled a woman who came to play with a check from the government. He was concerned that this may have been her only income, but he still let her play.

Even for those who win, gambling is problematic. About one-third of lottery jackpot winners will end up bankrupt. More will end up divorced or estranged from family and friends. The repercussions may not be as grave for those who win smaller prizes at the local bingo parlor or parish lottery, but the excitement of the win still fosters a sinister materialism and greed that is ultimately antithetical to the sort of character the church aims to foster in its members. Church leaders should ask themselves if the call to discipleship really includes fostering a competitive spirit for a $3,000 payout.

While church-sponsored bingo may unintentionally prey on the poor, parish lotteries may also exclude the poor from what amounts to an important social event in the life of the parish. A struggling family is not likely to have the ability to afford many raffle tickets, despite the allure of the prize. Wealthier parishioners can fork over relatively large sums to support a parish fundraiser—despite the fact that the “prize” is not likely to benefit them as much.

The biggest problem with church-sponsored gambling is that it gets people used to seeing gambling as fun, exciting, or even charitable, making them more inclined toward more dangerous forms of gambling that the Massachusetts Catholic Conference opposed in its testimony.

A fundamental insight of Thomas Aquinas’ moral theology is that we form our character through our actions. Those who gamble at a church-sponsored bingo parlor are more likely to see casino gambling as a desirable pastime—and indeed, once casinos come to town, churches have had to close their bingo parlors. For the clientele, it makes little difference whether the revenue is going to the church or to the house. The act itself is the same.

The habits developed by church-sponsored gambling feed societal enthusiasm for more insidious forms of gambling and all their associated dangers. We saw this with William Bennett, the Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan who lost millions gambling. Bennett’s gambling problem began with church bingo. It is hypocritical for the church to oppose these “predatory” forms of gambling while fostering in their own parishioners those very same habits that support a more widespread cultural acceptance of gambling.

According to the catechism, a fundamental moral precept of the church is that “the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the church, each according to his own ability.” Maybe the next time the collection plate comes around or we get that letter in the mail from our parish priest requesting a pledge, we will remember our obligation and give a little more abundantly. The solution to the church’s “gambling problem” rests largely in our own hands—and wallets.