BOSTON — Led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the Catholic bishops in Massachusetts are urging voters to support a ballot measure this November that would repeal a 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in the Bay State.
As of now, not a single casino has been built in Massachusetts, but the bishops have been warning that building three casinos — one for each region of the state — and one slots parlor, as the law allows, will not spur economic development, but instead will cause many local businesses to fail while leading more people into gambling addiction.
“The gambling industry threatens local businesses, weakens the moral fabric of society and fundamentally alters communities for decades to come,” the state’s four bishops said in a Sept. 15 statement.
The bishops also said they were concerned that if the casino industry takes root in Massachusetts, the state will be forced to rely on an unstable form of revenue, which depends largely on those addicted to gambling: “They are the citizens who are already among the ranks of the poorest in the community — the ones who can least afford to gamble.”
“The bishops laid out their case pretty well,” said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. Driscoll told the Register that expanded casino gaming may create some new jobs, but he asked: “At what cost?”
“It really is predatory, and it is breaking up families,” Driscoll said.
Anyone who has ever attended a bingo game at a parish hall — or who has gone on a parish trip to a casino — knows that the Catholic Church does not outright condemn gambling. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, games of chance are “not in themselves contrary to justice” (2413). However, the Catechism teaches that gambling is morally unacceptable when it deprives someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The risk of gambling “becoming an enslavement” makes wagering a grave matter for those prone to addiction.
“The Catholic Catechism makes it clear that gambling in and of itself is not wrong. It just has to be done in appropriate limits and sensibly, and that includes not only appreciating personal limits and how much money you have, but also the context in which gambling happens and what is happening in a particular community,” said Matthew Schmalz, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
“It fundamentally raises questions on what we do with the money we have,” Schmalz told the Register. “If we have excess money, is it appropriate to gamble it in a context where there are other pressing needs?”
Another important factor is the host community where a casino would be built. Some cities and towns in Massachusetts that have been identified as possible locations for casinos are struggling economically and have high unemployment rates, as well as related social ills that include high rates of street crime and drug abuse — problems that pastors fear will be aggravated by casinos.
For example, in Fall River, Mass., an old mill city that consistently has an unemployment rate over 10%, the owners of the Connecticut-based Foxwoods Resort Casino earlier this year explored the possibility of building a new resort casino, an idea embraced by municipal leaders. Father Roger Landry, the pastor of St. Bernadette Church, an inner-city parish in Fall River’s gritty Flint neighborhood, wrote a parish bulletin article urging parishioners to contact City Hall and voice their concerns.
“With any kind of gambling, the house always wins, and if the casino was to be built in Fall River, then the casino would be the one to make the profits, whereas residents of Fall River and the surrounding areas would be the ones left paying the bill,” Father Landry told the Register.
“It dramatically increases gambling addiction and crime in and around the casinos. Prostitution comes into the area. There are a whole bunch of social ills that are the social price tags of a casino,” Father Landry added.
Catholic leaders in other states have voiced similar concerns in recent years. Since 2011, the bishops in Kentucky and Florida have issued statements opposing expanded gambling. In 2013, the New York State Catholic Conference warned residents to be very careful before they approved a constitutional amendment that expanded casino gambling. The amendment was framed as part of a plan to bring jobs to economically distressed upstate regions.
In Massachusetts, similar economic arguments were made just before Gov. Deval Patrick signed the expanded gambling law in 2011. At the time, the state’s unemployment rate hovered around 7.4%, and thousands of families relied on state assistance. While many people still struggle, the Massachusetts economy subsequently has improved, and unemployment now is 5.5%, below the national average of 6.1%.
As the Bay State economy has recovered, the state’s bishops note that casinos in other Northeast states where gambling is legal — New Jersey and Connecticut especially — are struggling. In Atlantic City, N.J., five of the city’s 12 casinos are expected to close by year’s end.
“Many individuals in those states who heard the same promise of gainful employment in the gaming industry are now losing their jobs,” the Massachusetts bishops said.
A Yes vote on Question 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot would ban casinos and slot parlors in Massachusetts. The state’s bishops are encouraging people to vote Yes, but recent public opinion polls indicate that 51%-59% of voters oppose repealing the law.
“In one sense, you’re not bound to obedience to what the bishops say in relation to this particular ballot question,” Schmalz said. “But what the bishops seem to be saying, and I personally agree with them, is that gambling is a false promise of prosperity to a community, and I think many communities in Massachusetts are looking for a quick fix to their economic ills when they can’t bring in industry.”
Among Catholics in Massachusetts, the casino issue has generated conversations about the propriety of raffles and bingo nights in parish halls. Driscoll said that was like comparing apples to oranges.
“I don’t think parish bingo takes away from the community, effects local businesses or closes shops the way that a high-stakes casino does,” Driscoll said.
“We don’t have a problem with gambling addicts, prostitution and crime around church bingo halls. Nobody is losing a lot of money at bingo,” agreed Father Landry.
C.J. Doyle, the executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, also agrees with the bishops’ anti-casino position.
“Legalized gambling is essentially a regressive tax that falls disproportionately on the poor and creates all sorts of difficult societal problems. It has never fulfilled the economic and fiscal expectations that its proponents claim,” Doyle said.
Doyle also told the Register that expanded casino gambling is “scandalous and entirely opposed to the common good.”
Said Doyle, “This is an addiction to some people, and the state should not be using an addiction as a revenue stream.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.