Page 1, 29th October 2004

29th October 2004
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Page 1, 29th October 2004 — Bishops join offensive against ‘dangerous’gambling reforms

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Bishops join offensive against ‘dangerous’gambling reforms

Catholic Church supports Methodist and Salvation Army call for major changes to new Government proposals to open ‘super-casinos’ in every British town


Gambling is not necessarily sinful, but Government plans to relax gaming laws are dangerous and unwanted by the public, according to the bishops of England and Wales.

A new Gambling Bill proposed by the Government would allow Las Vegas-style “super-casinos” in every British town, million-dollar slot machines and horseracing on religious holidays such as Good Friday and Christmas Day.

The proposals have prompted a strong critical backlash from the press, with the Daily Mail launching a “Kill the Casino Bill” campaign. The newspaper last week published a list of religious leaders and public figures opposed to the Bill, including Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, Bishop Mark Jabalé of Menevia, and Bishop Thomas Burns of the Forces, as well as Anglican leader Dr Rowan Williams and several Church of England bishops. Bishop Burns, however, said that he had not agreed to be associated with any campaign against the Bill.

Then on Monday the Catholic bishops collectively entered the fray, saying they supported the efforts of the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army — traditional opponents of gambling — to seek amendments to counter the worst possible effects of any new legislation.

Opponents of the Bill — among them, reportedly, members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet — accuse the Government of selling out to international gaming corporations in order to rake in a projected extra £260 million year in tax revenues, and fuelling and creating problems of gambling addiction.

In defence of its Bill, the Government claims that a new gambling commission will promote “socially responsible gambling”, reduce the number of underage gamblers and combat the unregulated spread of internet gambling, the booming sector of the betting market. Supporters of the Bill point out that a £3 million fund would be set up to help cure gambling problems.

Archbishop Peter Smith, head of the Department of Christian Life and Worship of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, agreed with the Government that society needed to increase control over gambling so that people could be protected, but he argued that the Government’s Bill must contain stronger restrictions.

“The Catholic Church teaches that gambling is not intrinsically wrong,” said Archbishop Smith in a statement released on Monday on behalf of the Catholic bishops.

“But it becomes morally unacceptable when a person’s gambling becomes obsessive or leads to the gambler or their family suffering through loss of money. The duty of society is therefore to regulate gambling so as to allow it to continue, whilst effectively protecting vulnerable people, especially young people, who may be at risk of exploitation or addiction.” In an interview with The Catholic Herald, Archbishop Smith said the Bill was confusing. “It’s rather a schizophrenic Bill,” he said. “The Government wants to regulate gambling on one hand, which is a good thing, and seems to allow the spread of gambling on the other. There is no great public demand for these large casinos. There are problems with young people gambling, and I think some 350,000 people are addicted.

“The Methodist Church and the Salvation Army have been working hard on behalf of the churches on these issues and have sought to ensure the Bill contains stronger restrictions. I support the efforts they have been making.” The Salvation Army has issued a number of criticisms of the new gambling proposals. In a statement to the press the denomination pointed to a survey that revealed that 93 per cent of people polled felt there were already enough opportunities to gamble in the United Kingdom, and more than half did not want a casino to be opened near where they live.

“The Government is out of step with the public on many of the issues raised in the Gambling Bill,” the group said. “It seems the only people who will truly benefit from the proposed legislation are the gaming industry, which stands to make substantial profits, and the Government through increased tax revenue.” Bishop Thomas Burns of the Forces was also critical of Government proposals. “The draft Bill provides further opportunities to channel funds to corporate profiteers and the state,” he said. “Potentially I think it may increase personal stress, loss and debts,” he said. “People, especially young people, should be aware that gambling comes with huge uncertainties. The odds are stacked against them.” Archbishop Nichols is understood to be firmly opposed to plans for a large casino to be opened in his archdiocese.

Certain Catholics are less condemnatory about the nature of gambling. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Williams of Liverpool admitted that he succumbs to the odd punt.

“I would not be in a position to comment on the Bill because I have not been following the debate,” he said. “But I think the Catholic Church has a perfectly healthy attitude to gambling, which is that it is all right as long as you don’t go too far. I think if you went to Ireland you find that most of the priests there enjoy the occasional bet.” Fr Michael Seed, the noted Franciscan, recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas. He said that although he had never gambled in his life, as a Franciscan he advised others on how to bet their money. He said: “There is a Diocese of Las Vegas, a Bishop of Las Vegas, the cathedral is called Our Lady of Las Vegas. An entire diocese living on the wages of sin! Las Vegas was originally a Franciscan mission, so I was really returning to my roots. I felt completely at home.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not prohibit gambling. “Games of chance (card games, etc) or wagers are not themselves contrary to Justice,” it says. “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 enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute a grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.” Catholicism has not always been so easy going on “games of chance”. In the first canons of the Church, the faithful were ordered to avoid such games or incur excommunication. St Peter Damian (1007-72) even considered chess an unlawful pastime for clerics. As Archbishop of Milan, St Charles Borromeo (1538-84), whose feast day is celebrated next week, drew up a list of games forbidden to his clergy , including dice in various forms, football, and even croquet.

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