Gambling With Morality

Author: ZENIT



Games of Chance: Innocuous Pastime or Illicit Activity?

NEW YORK, 2 FEB. 2002 (ZENIT).

The Church speaking out against gambling could seem contradictory. After all, many Catholic charities raise funds by selling lottery tickets, and parish bingo nights are common in many areas.

Laws on gambling have been relaxed in recent years, and the amount of money dedicated to this activity is spiraling upward. Toward the end of 2001, the state of New York passed legislation authorizing six new Indian-run casinos; video slot machines at racecourses; and the Powerball lottery.

The reasons behind the measure are no secret. Officials hope to gain as much as $1 billion in annual revenues within three years, the New York Times reported Oct. 25. Nationwide, more than 200 Indian casinos have started up in the last decade, the Times noted Dec. 17. The two most successful, in Connecticut, have an estimated combined revenue of $1.9 billion a year.

A Nov. 29 editorial in the Times criticized the extension of gambling, saying that the social costs will outweigh any economic benefits. Casinos lead to an increase in crime, suicide, bankruptcies and divorces, noted the editorial.

In Australia, meanwhile, profits from the nation's 13 casinos rose by $A537 million ($273 million U.S.) in the financial year 2000-01, to above $A3 billion ($1.52 billion U.S.) for the first time. If gambling losses in the last year were spread evenly, every adult Australian lost $A71 on poker and gaming machines and $A59 on gaming tables (about $36 and $30, respectively, in U.S. dollars), the Sydney Morning Herald reported Dec. 8.

Casinos are not the only place where people can gamble in Australia. In the most populous state, New South Wales, last year clubs and hotels made more than $A4 billion profit ($2.04 billion U.S.) from just over 100,000 poker machines in operation, the Morning Herald reported Dec. 28.

The problems gambling can create were illustrated in a Nov. 25 article in the Washington Post. The report on South Africa noted that in recent years the government has lifted the ban on casinos and other forms of gambling. Since 1996, 24 casinos have opened and another 16 licenses have been granted.

A national lottery began just under two years ago attracts long lines for tickets -- even though the odds of winning the big prize of almost a half million dollars are only 1 in 14 million.

In a country where nearly half the population is classified as poor and a third of the work force is unemployed, the attraction of hitting the jackpot is leading many to squander money they can ill afford to lose. The Post article noted that many lose the money they need to pay rent, educate their children and buy food.

"In a country with so much poverty, gambling can fuel fantasies that are out of reach for virtually everyone," said Peter Collins, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Gambling at the University of Cape Town.

In Argentina, casino gambling rose 25% in the year ending last June, according to a Sept. 2 report in the newspaper La Nación. The paper quoted a psychoanalyst, Susana Epstein, who said the economic crisis was prompting some people to turn to gambling in order to seek a solution to their problems. Gamblers Anonymous of Argentina calculates that about 3 million of the country's 37 million people are addicted to gambling.

Mexico, meanwhile, is considering lifting its 1934 prohibition against casinos. Racetracks now offer about the only legal outlet for gamblers, the Financial Times noted Jan. 3.

The congressional tourism commission has recommended legalization of casinos in tourist destinations, such as Cancún and Acapulco, and along the U.S.-Mexican border. The commission says this could bring in $3 billion in annual revenues and create 98,000 permanent jobs.

There are concerns, however, that casinos could also attract prostitution, drug trafficking and money laundering, the Financial Times observed. Raul Escamila of the Mexicali Center of Rehabilitation commented: "The casino owners will be the winners in this game, but our children will the ones who lose," referring to the fear that casinos will lead the local population to waste its money on gambling.

What the Church says

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2413, has the following to say on gambling: "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. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant."

How can we distinguish when gambling is morally acceptable or not? Leon J. Suprenant offered some pointers on this matter, in the July-August 2001 issue of Lay Witness magazine.

His article referred to the virtues of temperance and justice. Temperance, also referred to as moderation, when applied to gambling means that "one must act moderately and not fall prey to the passion and excitement of the moment, which might lead him to wager an amount that is excessive for someone in his state in life."

As for justice, this applies both to the way the game is organized and to those who take part in it, observed Suprenant. The game itself should be fair, avoiding fraud or deception. And the participants should only risk a quantity of money that can be considered as justified for legitimate recreation, and is not required for important personal needs, the family, or creditors.

These two virtues should also be applied in examining how much time is spent gambling. Thus, even a wealthy person should not neglect family responsibilities by spending inordinate periods at the gaming tables. Those with plenty of money to spare should also remember that money spent on gambling could be well spent on helping the poor.

A night of parish bingo can be justified, the article stated. Not only are the stakes low, but it is also an opportunity to socialize and provide support for the parish. Nevertheless, in order to avoid possible problems, the article recommends a number of steps: limiting the amount that can be wagered; banning alcoholic drinks; and promoting a friendly, Christian atmosphere.

Suprenant also warned parishes against becoming financially dependent on this type of activities. Exploring other means of fund raising would be a positive step, and give those not interested in gambling an alternative way to support a worthy cause.

The recent enthusiasm of governments to promote all forms of gambling is due principally to the discovery of a new way to raise revenues, without the political cost of increasing taxes. Governments too would benefit from a healthy application of the virtues of moderation and temperance. ZE02020203  

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