Industrial amusement in Massachusetts

I met a young man recently who told me that he makes weekly gambling visits to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and travels to Las Vegas at least twice a year. “But you know,” he offered, “I live in Revere and I don’t much like the idea of opening a casino at Suffolk Downs [a racetrack in town]. The traffic and all the added stuff that comes with casinos, I don’t think it’s that good to have so close.”

“All the added stuff.” This is where much of the problem lies with industrial amusement, otherwise known as casino gambling, mega lotteries, and other high stakes ventures. The issue is now banner high in the Commonwealth with Gov. Deval Patrick’s announced support for casinos to open here.

My own form of gambling is to take a few extra minutes to sleep in on a work day, betting that I can still get up and get ready fast enough to make the morning bus into work. I buy (and sell) raffle tickets for our parish and our daughter’s parochial school. I pvlay cards but not for money. I’m not much of an amusement industrialist. I’ve never gone to a casino on land or at sea nor had the desire to. The lure that hooks other fish to be filleted has never attracted me, I guess.

I remember growing up as a kid in the Midwest attending numerous parish bingo halls, tobacco smoky, smelling of hotdogs or fried catfish, with rows upon rows of very intent “bingoers” doing their part to keep the pastor and principal in the black. I also recall friends in high school who got very serious about betting on football, basketball and other sports. So serious that they were losing money they didn’t have. Nowadays, I see the comfy buses parked outside nearby parishes, destined for some casino, all for the sake of “a good time had by all.”

Why should Catholics be concerned about the move in Massachusetts to industrialize amusement? By the way, “gambling” comes from a Latin root word meaning amusement. Is it a sin to be amused? Using the most essential phrase in the legal lexicon, “it depends.”

Since the Catholic Church does not condemn museums, but rather through its Vatican museums hosts some of the best in the world, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with amusement. To “muse” means, based on another Latin root word, to stick your snout into something intently. (It’s all there in Webster’s!) Another root meaning is “to gape or stare.” The word also refers more positively to the acts of reflecting, thinking deeply, and meditation. Greek mythology described the muses as goddesses who inspired in the arts of poetry and music.

In 1981, the Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts issued their first statement on gambling of the industrial kind. They began by acknowledging that “simple games of chance done primarily for amusement are not immoral in themselves nor are they categorically forbidden by the teachings of the Church.” Yet, “we do believe that there is a major difference between these simple games of chance and casino gambling.”

The Massachusetts bishops pointed to evidence of such problems as compulsive gambling, prostitution, and the social costs borne by the vulnerable both going into and living outside of casinos. The evidence even back then prompted the bishops to voice “clear and categoric opposition to any attempt to legalize casino gambling in this state.”

Since the bishops first spoke, the evidence of gambling’s downside has strengthened, so much so that Gov. Patrick had to admit to the negatives in his remarks announcing his approval. By arguing that the state needs the money that casino gambling supposedly will produce, and that the state’s needs outweigh the trauma that surely will be visited upon thousands of citizens by the opening of casinos, the governor and his administration reveal a stunning pattern of utilitarian policymaking.

The governor’s call for casinos echoes the argument he has made when pushing for embryonic stem-cell research in the Commonwealth as a financial boon. Progress and prosperity over ethics! His chief public health officer, Dr. JudyAnn Bigby of the Department of Public Health expressed the disturbing calculus even more clearly when she told the Boston Globe that “I think it’s important to acknowledge that if in fact 20,000 new jobs will be developed in Massachusetts, that has a major impact on people’s health and well-being.”

Bigby continued by saying that “Overall, I think there are a small percentage of people who we might anticipate would have some problems, but the overall majority of people who go to casinos or participate in gaming do not have problems.” In other words, we have to promote jobs for the many over health for the vulnerable. That’s enough to make one gape or stare, but most assuredly it is not amusing.

The battle over casino gambling will be intense and long. The governor has yet to file legislation and the media report strong opposition in at least the House of Representatives. We will have a challenge in presenting to legislators “all the added stuff” in an environment focused on dollar signs. Stay tuned, and if you have not yet joined MCC-Net, the legislative e-mail alert network of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, do so today by going online to www.macathconf.org.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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