Last week, Pope Francis set himself and the Catholic church an enormous challenge. His Apostolic Exhortation called for decentralisation of power and a renewed focus on shattering the ‘idolatry of money’. This pope seems less concerned by abortion, contraception and homosexuality and more concerned with the treatment of the poor and disadvantaged in society.
Perhaps this direction will provide the impetus for the Catholic church in Australia to end its unhealthy association with poker machines. Could we finally see an end to Sydney’s ‘Catholic casinos’?
Few people outside Sydney would be aware of the Catholic church’s involvement with poker machines in Australia. In 2012, Catholic clubs operated 1700 high-intensity poker machines and generated revenue of $134 million.
Strictly speaking, Catholic clubs are legally independent of the Catholic church. In a moral sense they carry the Catholic brand and purport to uphold Catholic principles. The church provides tacit support for the clubs through the ongoing use of its name.
Government figures show that up to 40% of a club’s poker-machine revenue may come directly from problem gamblers. Figures from one Sydney Catholic club, Dooleys, show that almost 80% of the club’s revenue in 2009/2010 came from its high-intensity poker machines. By extension, this suggests that around one third of Dooley’s total revenue can be attributable to problem gamblers.
The Vatican publishes a catechism as an easy-to-understand summary of Catholic principles. Catechism 2413 states “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. 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 an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”
Catholic bishops in Australia are clearly uneasy with the Church’s association with poker machines. In 2011 they issued a statement calling for ‘all clubs associated with the church’ to give careful consideration to the Government’s proposed mitigation strategies. The Catholic clubs ignored this request and chose to support Clubs NSW political campaign against the proposed government reforms.
As a listed company with obligations to shareholders, Woolworths (Australia’s largest operator of poker machines) could almost be expected to put profits ahead of people. But Catholic clubs are not-for-profit organisations established to benefit their members. Unfortunately, the Catholic clubs exist almost entirely from the money that they extract from poker machines; much of this from the suffering of those with gambling addictions.
The figures show that problem is a serious one. One in eight Australians report that problem gambling affects their family and 95,000 problem gamblers in Australia lose around $45,100 each per year. This leads to financial, emotional and physical stress on the individual and the family concerned.
Yet on the proliferation of poker machines in Australia, Cardinal Pell has said: “I must confess I do feel a bit uneasy about that, but only a bit uneasy.” Unlike his bishops, Cardinal Pell does not seem to accept that the Catholic church may actually be part of the problem in Australia.
Before the election, PM Abbott promised to abandon attempts at minimising the social harm from poker machines. Abbott’s ‘solution’ hands over responsibility to Clubs NSW. In the words of Tim Costello: “this is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank”.
If Abbott is successful in unwinding the reforms introduced by Andrew Wilkie, problem gambling will continue to enslave its addicts and their families. Those who fight against the reforms do so purely from a position of self-interest. Unfortunately in Australia, that includes the Catholic church.
Hopefully, Pope Francis can lead the church away from its obsession with people’s bedrooms. Instead, by fighting the ‘idolatry of money’, he may alleviate those things that cause real harm and injustice in society.
Gambling is not inherently wrong. However Sydney’s ‘Catholic casinos’ are based on a business model that depends on problem gambling for their survival, and the church in Australia does itself a massive disservice through its tacit support.