Many of my fondest childhood memories of my long-deceased father involve my going to the horse races with him. He even on occasion let me stay home from school (I guess I was “home-stretch schooled”) to go with him to Santa Anita race track in Southern California. I also looked forward to the scenic drives down the coast to Del Mar race track in the San Diego area, which became for us a summer ritual.
Whether we were arguing about who was the horse to beat in the next race or discussing whatever happened to come into my mind, this was my time with him, and I still cherish it. While this assuredly wasn't as wholesome an activity as playing catch in the yard or going fishing, it did provide us an opportunity to spend time together and share a common interest.
But there's another, much uglier side to the world of gambling, a world that now constitutes a $600 billion-a-year (and rapidly growing) industry. I have seen first-hand how the urge to gamble can become what the Catechism calls an “enslavement” or what psychologists and counselors call an “addiction.” Reputable reports indicate that millions of Americans are addicted to gambling, and many of them are adolescents or younger.
Gambling is like alcohol consumption. It's not an intrinsic evil, and in moderation it can be a legitimate form of recreation. However, both are easily abused, especially where there is a family history of abuse. So, for many people, especially those of us with gambling “in our blood” from our earliest years, games of chance provide an almost irresistible occasion of sin.
Governments are well aware of our human frailty. State-sponsored gambling has become the most insidious and fundamentally unjust system of taxation used in this country, and families are the big losers.
That's why in my opinion, though gambling itself isn't evil, I think it's unwise for a church or parish to develop a dependency on bingo revenue, thereby preying on the weaknesses of some members of the community as a principal means of church support. Institutionalized bingo promotes vice rather than virtue, and encourages the pursuit of mammon, not God.
There are, of course, many variables when it comes to parish-sponsored bingo, raffles, “Las Vegas nights,” and other fund-raising efforts that must be taken into account. Perhaps the overarching rule of thumb should be that in every case there must be the desire to draw people into the heart of the Church. Is the parish “enslaved” to gambling, or are its fund-raising efforts ordered to leading people to a renewed faith in Jesus Christ, the most valuable prize there is (cf. Lk 15:8-10; Phil 3:13-15)?
For ourselves, we must in all things foster the virtue of generosity, which literally means “full of giving life.” We are all called to be generous in giving time to God in prayer. Parents are called to be generous in their openness to new life. We are called to be generous to others, as we serve the “hidden Jesus” in the poor, needy, or forgotten in our midst.
And when it comes to supporting the Church, we are called to put our money where our hearts are. That seems risky to fragile beings like us. Yet our Lord assures us that this is a winning, life-giving bet if our hearts are in the right place that is, if we seek first the Kingdom of God.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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