2016-06-30

I'm a Catholic, but there's one time-honored Catholic tradition I don't believe in: bingo night at the parish hall. No one has called me a heretic, but I have been called a killjoy by other Catholics I know.

“What's your problem?” they ask. “It's just harmless fun for the oldsters, and you couldn't run some parishes without it."

I think it's time to challenge these assumptions.

Bingo is not harmless

A 2004 study by the Texas Lottery Commission noted that the typical church bingo player is a white woman in her 60s who earns $24,000 a year at most but spends $101 per bingo night—not exactly chump change.

The study confirms what your own eyes will tell you if you look around your parish hall on bingo night: a sea of older ladies who are by no means expensively dressed. So you've got to wonder: Are these retirees and widows living on fixed incomes really the people your parish wants to feed off? When the average parish family with a member or two in the workforce contributes less than $10 per week to the collection basket?

And for some of these old folks, bingo isn't just entertainment; it's an addiction. As one church bingo regular told the Santa Fe New Mexican last year, "If you've got a gambling problem, what better place to be but dollar bingo? And I'd sooner see people donate that money [to the church] than go to the casino."


Never mind that a compulsive gambler’s family might actually wish that he or she would go to a 12-step program. Furthermore, the operators of parish bingo games may not always be able to spot the players who shouldn't be at the table. (Hint: As the granddaughter of a compulsive gambler, I can tell you that the gambling addict is usually the one sitting in the corner by himself craving the adrenaline rushes afforded by big wins and losses—it doesn’t matter which—and thinking up ways to raise a stake for the next game by, say, selling all of grandma’s clothes.)

And now that bingo has come to broadcast television via ABC's National Bingo Night, an "interactive" show in which viewers can download bingo cards on their computers and play for prizes at home, I'm even more perturbed. Although (unlike church bingo) National Bingo Night doesn't charge to play, it could whet addicts' appetite for the highs and lows of bingo elsewhere. Gambling regulators in many states, including the Michigan State Gaming Board in my own state, do not require charitable bingo operators to have any special training in spotting or helping compulsive gamblers.

Besides harming people, parish-sponsored bingo also harms the reputation of the Catholic Church, especially among other Christians who regard any form of gambling as a serious sin and can be scandalized by the church's indulgent attitude toward bingo. When the news broke that William Bennett, the Reagan administration drug czar and author of numerous books promoting virtue, had lost an estimated $8 million in high-stakes gambling, Bennett, a lifelong Catholic, told the Washington Post that his habit had started with "church bingo." That revelation prompted articles like this one in the Baptist Standard :

"Bennett's gambling incident reveals a distinction between most Roman Catholics and millions of other people of faith. Bennett grew up around gambling in Catholic bingo halls and never looked at it as a 'moral issue,' he [Bennett] explained..Most Baptists and other conservative Christians view it as a moral evil."

How much fun is bingo, really?

A beloved and recently deceased neighbor of mine, who would have been 75 this month, played bingo at our parish now and then.

“I don’t care about it really,” she’d say, “I just buy a few cards and run up there to talk with the gals I don’t see very often."

What my neighbor really liked to do was share her energy and warmth with other people. She knitted lap robes for a nursing home, made cookies for the library’s summer reading program, kept a big garden whose bounty she shared, and always had a cup of coffee ready if you needed a break in your day.

All of these activities could have been translated by our parish into organized programs for our members. But no—we have no time for that kind of thing. We have a bingo operation to run. I can only imagine how vibrant our parish might be were energy like that of my neighbor to be tapped instead of zapped with bingo.

Parishes don't need bingo

Anybody involved with a church bingo operation knows it requires a fair amount time and energy to start up. And once created, bingo does not sit quietly in a corner making money for parish needs.

Bingo sits in at meetings of the parish finance committee pointing out the sudden need for more restroom supplies and maintenance (the inevitable result of having a hall full of people drinking coffee for several hours while they play). Bingo demands outdoor ashtrays for players who aren't allowed to smoke indoors. Bingo scolds parishioners via reminders in the weekly bulletin that not enough of them are volunteering to help out on bingo night. Bingo bullies critics by claiming that it provides a social outlet for neglected elderly people—and is thus a kind of ministry. But mostly, bingo insists at every turn, "The parish can't survive without me."

In fact, parish bingo makes noise about everything except how much money it makes. The "bingo finder" on the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s website indicates that about 20 percent of the parishes in my own diocese sponsor bingo nights. The online newsletters for most of these parishes list the amounts received weekly from the Sunday collection. How many list the take from bingo?

None.

That might be because, as my Nexis search of news stories about bingo in Catholic churches revealed, the average net take to the parishes was typically five to eight cents on the dollar. That’s a pretty poor return for the effort of putting the games together, and it's income that could be surely raised in other ways.

The future does not look bright for Catholic bingo, and I can't say I'm sorry. According to the news stories I've read, the crowds at church bingo games are thinning. The reasons: competition from casinos, bans on smoking in public places that can make bingo no fun, and the simple fact that fewer and fewer young people are interested in bingo.

Some bishops, notably Frederick Henry, bishop of Calgary, have realized the moral danger of gambling and simply shut down parish bingo operations, despite widespread protests from the parishes themselves. Bishop Henry said, “It is morally wrong for a Catholic institution to formally cooperate in an industry that exploits the weak and vulnerable."

So Catholic parishes that sponsor bingo nights—or are thinking about starting them—ought to ask themselves these questions:
  • Are such operations legal and properly licensed? Getting busted for running an illegal bingo game is a scandal the church doesn’t need.

  • How much does (or would) bingo cost the parish each year? How much does it bring in? What does it pay for? Are those amounts clearly communicated to parishioners in the bulletin or annual report? Do most of the parishioners support bingo?

  • Who plays bingo on bingo night in your parish? Have the crowds increased or decreased recently? Do you see a mix of younger and older players? If not, you should think about how to attract younger players if you want your operation to survive. Think about whether your parish offers players anything else besides a chance to win a cash prize, such as a sense of community.

  • If your parish regards bingo as an outreach ministry for the elderly and lonely, are the volunteer workers friendly and welcoming? Do they get to know the players? Would they know how to help them in other ways, such as with a food pantry or a referral to counseling?

  • Finally, are your parish's bingo workers trained to spot those who might have a gambling problem? Would they intervene if they thought someone appeared to be a compulsive gambler? Is the phone number for Gamblers Anonymous available in the bingo hall?

    Maybe if we as Catholics looked at these issues more closely, we’d all be lucky winners—because bingo is a form of recreation that has the potential to do much harm without accomplishing much good in return.
  • more from beliefnet and our partners