You Bet Your Life

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 racetrack in Southern California. I also looked forward to the scenic drives down the coast to Del Mar racetrack 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 firsthand how the urge to gamble can become what the Catechism calls an “enslavement” (no. 2413) or what psychologists and counselors call an “addiction.” Reputable reports indicate that 15-20 million Americans are addicted to gambling and–tragically–many of them are adolescents.

Signs of the Times

A few years ago, after getting my first pair of bifocals, I started taking a renewed interest in billboards and signs. Over time I noticed an unmistakable trend: If a church sign had a quote from Scripture, it wasn’t a Catholic church. If, however, a church sign gave information on “bingo night,” then it was a Catholic church.

Clearly there are many uses for church signs besides Scripture quotes (for example, Mass times, fish fries, Catechism quotes, invitations to RCIA or other programs, etc.). And surely there are serious reasons why some parishes have deemed it necessary to have institutionalized bingo. Often the parish school-or even the parish itself–seemingly hangs in the balance.

Still, for those of us who are simply driving down the street–Catholics and non-Catholics alike–the widespread association of the Catholic Church with bingo is a scandalizing, not evangelizing, phenomenon.

There are of course some parishioners who go to bingo to socialize and to support their parish. However, this often is not the experience. Typically, people are drawn in from the surrounding community–not because they’re necessarily interested at all in Jesus Christ or His Church, but because they’re looking for some “action.” In many areas, someone looking to gamble can go to a different Catholic church-sponsored bingo hall every night of the week.

I think a good analogy can be drawn to alcohol. The Church clearly teaches that consuming alcoholic beverages is sinful only when done to the point of excess (cf. Catechism, no. 2290). Yet I don’t think we’d want our parish to finance its school or religious education program by running a cocktail lounge!

Corrective Vision

There are many variables when it comes to parish-sponsored bingo, raffles, “Las Vegas nights,” and other fundraising efforts that need to be taken into account. Yet in every case there must be the desire to lead people into the heart of the Church. Something is amiss if the parishioner’s primary–or only–church involvement is the weekly bingo game. And to the extent the bingo game is advertised to the general public, reasonable efforts should be made not only to welcome the individual’s bingo money, but also the individual himself or herself.

The fact that bingo is being played in a church building doesn’t mean that people will soak in the Catholic faith through osmosis. In other words, if we’re going to take their money, we should at least offer them faith in Jesus Christ, the most valuable prize there is (cf. Lk. 15:8-10; Phil. 3:13-15).

I think the problem is fairly clear; on Monday’s blog I will offer some solutions. 

One response

  1. It is interesting to me. Growing up I did not know that people would use this for “gambling”. I think the prize should be the activity, maybe a small cash prize for winning. When I was younger I figured people would pay to play some Bingo because it was fun. When I found out how competive it was I decided I was never going to go…

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