In reviewing my files I see that it's been almost ten years since I've written about gambling. In light of the fierce debate now taking place in Rhode Island about a new casino, it's time to revisit the question.
First, a word about the Church's approach to gambling. The Catholic Church does not hold that all gambling is immoral. There is no Scriptural, traditional or magisterial basis for such a teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming enslavement." (#2413)
In other words, while gambling itself is morally neutral, the circumstances surrounding it can render it immoral. These circumstances include: using excessive amounts of money, addiction to gambling, gambling that is unfair to the participants, gambling that leads to crime and corruption, gambling that causes collateral damage to individuals, families or communities.
Gambling is a very sensitive topic for Catholics. We realize that there are moral concerns about gambling, but still we play bingo, sell raffle tickets, have parish festivals with games of chance, and organize trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Are sins being committed every time these activities take place? I don't think so.
In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that Yours Truly has been known to participate in a little gambling on occasion. I buy raffle tickets to support a local parish or school. I participate in friendly football pools. I've won and lost (usually lost) a few bucks on the golf course. And on a few occasions I've even made a pilgrimage to Foxwoods, paying my tithe to the slot machines. (A word of self-defense: In light of my Irish-German heritage and very frugal nature, both the time and money spent there are always strictly limited!)
Gambling can have useful purposes. Gambling provides funds for non-profit agencies such as churches, schools and fire-departments. It can be relaxing and fun for a group of friends. It can entice people out of their homes and form local communities. Many of our senior citizens find their primary social support around bingo tables.
It strikes me that as Catholics our approach to gambling is very similar to our approach to alcohol. While drinking alcohol is not evil in itself, the morality is found in the circumstances of its use or abuse.
We should be very reluctant then to level a universal condemnation of gambling. There is no theology to support such a stance and we can easily be accused of being hypocritical on the issue.
Even with that starting point, however, there are important questions to consider.
The rapid proliferation and acceptance of gambling in our society is troublesome. But if you've ever purchased a lottery ticket or participated in the annual football pool at the office you've contributed to that trend. Some have even suggested that "playing" the stock market is a form of gambling. After all, isn't it an investment of money with the chance of winning or losing very "iffy"?
The fact that the culture of gambling is ensnaring many of our young people, including college and high school students, is a growing and serious problem.
Without a doubt, large scale, corporate, professional gambling - such as that found in casinos - is in league of its own. It's essentially different than the gambling already mentioned and it presents serious concerns. This form of gambling is far more dangerous to individuals, families and communities. More money is involved. It's more addictive. Its primary motive is profit, not charity.
So, as we debate the development of a casino in Rhode Island, it's appropriate to reflect upon a few questions.
* In light of the proximity of other casinos in our region do we really need another one closer to home?
* Is corporate gambling the best we can do for economic development?
* Do the anticipated short term benefits justify the potential long term liabilities the gambling environment creates?
* Will a significant portion of the proceeds be dedicated to some redeeming social value, such as tax reduction, education or assistance to the poor?
* Are we sure that gambling will not engender other unsavory activities such as organized crime, prostitution or use of drugs?
* Is the participation of minors prohibited?
* Will there be sufficient supervision to ensure that the games are fair and that cheating is not involved?
These and perhaps other criteria need to be considered in evaluating the development of a casino in Rhode Island. Does the current proposal meet these standards? Probably not.
Nevertheless, the decision whether or not to support a specific casino - in a particular place, developed by a particular company, for the benefit of a particular group - is not a moral issue. It's a practical, prudential judgment about which people of goodwill might come to different conclusions. In considering the proposed amendment to our State Constitution that would allow for the expansion of casino gambling, I suggest that you weigh the human, sociological, economic, and political consequences and then vote your conscience.
(The column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)