My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The newest gambling casino in Illinois opened on July 18 in Cook County at the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. News reports said that so many people wanted to check out the new gambling palace, in fact, that casino management ended up advising potential guests to “consider delaying their visit” after the facility’s parking lots were overwhelmed and traffic was paralyzed along River Road for hours at midday.
There could be more scenarios like this after Illinois legislators approved five new casinos in May, but reports indicate that the bill isn’t expected to reach the governor’s desk until October. The plan calls for adding one casino in Chicago, two in its suburbs, and one each in Rockford and Danville. The bill would also massively expand gambling opportunities in Illinois at racetracks, at Illinois’ 10 existing riverboats, and would add slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
My purpose in writing about this is not to critique the plan from a political or economic perspective. Those are not my areas of expertise. However, I do think a development of this magnitude does call for some moral analysis, and as a religious leader in Illinois, I would like to take a look at this in light of Catholic teaching.
The official Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the subject of gambling in only one paragraph. Gambling is treated in paragraph 2413 under the heading of “games of chance” in the section that deals with the Ten Commandments. It is discussed there as a topic related to the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” The text is as follows: “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.”
As you can see, the Catholic Church’s treatment of gambling is nuanced. It is not a simple matter either as “yes, it’s permitted,” or “no, it’s a sin.” Like many other areas of moral analysis of behaviors and activities that are not in themselves intrinsically evil, the answer depends on the intent, the circumstances and the consequences.
The practices of the church herself regarding games of chance demonstrate this approach in practice. Many churches and other religious organizations use raffles, bingo and other games of chance as fundraising tools. The purpose is good (raising money for educational, religious and charitable purposes) and the stakes are usually modest enough not to jeopardize anyone’s livelihood or well-being by participating. Many church groups such as senior citizens clubs will have bingo, raffles and drawings for door prizes more as social activities rather than true gambling experiences.
Nevertheless, because of the church’s own practices in this regard, some people have questioned how the church can credibly critique gambling in other areas of society. Sensitive to such questioning, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago some years ago suggested that parishes should diminish their reliance on games of chance for fundraising purposes and instead suggested that churches should foster the development of stewardship as the model for church financial support. Well, the local tabloid newspaper the next day ran a large, bold-print headline, “Bernardin Bops Bingo!”
It is not my intention to “bop” anyone about gambling, but I do think it is essential to ask what the impact of expanding gambling opportunities would have on the moral fiber of our state. There is a big difference between a person buying a few moderately priced raffle tickets for a modest prize to support a church or charity, and someone who has the responsibility of supporting a family taking his or her paycheck and blowing it all at a casino in the hope of winning a jackpot.
Another crucial factor in this analysis is the fact that state-run gambling as a source of revenue is actually a regressive tax, that is, it disproportionately taxes the poor and lower-income people rather than the wealthy and those more financially capable of supporting the cost of government services. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my guess is that there are a lot more low-income people gambling their money at the casinos than there are millionaires!
It is also important to consider the historical connection between legalized gambling and organized crime, which was so readily apparent for years in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In many ways — sometimes subtle — gambling offers seductive temptations to succumb to corruption.
The Chicago Tribune reported last Sunday, for example, that nearly three-quarters of Illinois politicians who voted on a major expansion of gambling received campaign contributions from gaming interests in the past 18 months. The Tribune reported Sunday that lawmakers who voted for the bill received about 60 percent more from the industry than those voting against it. Certainly the fact of such campaign contributions does not constitute proof that donations from the gaming industry swayed the politicians’ votes, but it is also hard to convince the contrary to people based on public perception. For this reason, the State of New Jersey and some other states make such political contributions from gambling interests illegal.
In sum, it might be helpful to ask two simple questions: Is gambling a sin? Not necessarily. Will more casinos and expanded gambling opportunities in Illinois enhance the moral fiber of our state? Not likely.
The financial condition of our state government is in crisis, but there are better ways to address the state’s financial woes than by jeopardizing the moral fiber of her citizens.
May God give us this grace. Amen.