National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

William Bennett
- KRT/Rodney Turner
$8 million more than the milk money


Earlier this year I was interviewed by The New York Times for what became a front-page story on the Catholic billionaire and founder of Domino’s Pizza, Tom Monaghan, and his plans to establish a new Ave Maria University in Florida.

I took exception to Monaghan’s negative assessment of existing Catholic universities, but also faulted him for allocating such a large portion of his wealth to a cause far less deserving than Catholic inner-city schools or the church’s vast array of social ministry agencies serving the poor and the sick. I suggested that these latter priorities were more in keeping with the demands of the gospel.

Some readers chastised me for presuming to tell Monaghan how he should spend his money. He earned it, they pointed out. It’s his to dispose of as he chooses.

The Monaghan case came to mind during the recent flap over the gambling escapades of another Catholic multimillionaire, William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education and drug czar, political pundit and author of several best-selling books on virtue. Bennett was highly visible on television during the impeachment procedures against former President Clinton, excoriating Clinton’s personal behavior and deploring the decline of moral outrage in American society.

Bennett, it turned out, had a slight moral problem of his own.

According to Newsweek and The Washington Monthly, in the past decade he has lost more than $8 million at various casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas, where he has been “a preferred customer” at several gambling establishments.

After Bennett told the magazines that he has basically broken even over the years, Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist, phoned one of the casinos to verify this claim. The party at the other end of the line simply laughed.

Indeed, in a single two-month period Bennett wired one casino more than $1.4 million to cover his losses. The Boston Herald reported that Bennett lost $340,000 on July 12, 2002, at Caesar’s in Atlantic City, and in two days recently he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

“There’s a term in the trade for his kind of gambler,” said one casino source who has seen Bennett at the high-limits slots in the wee hours of the morning. “We call them losers.”

Bennett’s considerable income and wealth are derived largely from book royalties and numerous speeches before conservative and business groups around the country -- at $50,000 an appearance. Those talks invariably focus on what Bennett perceives as a general moral decline in American society.

Under pressure of such acutely embarrassing publicity, Bennett has now sworn off gambling, conceding that he had done “too much” of it and had set a poor example. Meanwhile, a few of his conservative allies have bent over backwards to rationalize his behavior.

James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family and a determined opponent of gambling, expressed disappointment, not outrage, while chalking it up to an “addiction,” thereby transforming it from a moral to a psychological problem. Grover Norquist, president of the conservative advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform, insisted, “It’s his own money and his own business.”

Even former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo rose to Bennett’s defense, pointing out that gambling is not a sin, nor is it illegal. To be sure, neither are eating and drinking sins or crimes -- unless one does so to excess (the capital sin of gluttony) or drives under the influence, which is a crime.

But there is an even deeper moral issue here. According to Catholic social teaching, people of means do not, in fact, have an absolute right to dispose of their income and wealth in any way they deem fit.

In his watershed 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII declared, “When the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains.” In using the word “duty,” the pope made it a matter of justice, not charity.

Pope Pius XI was even more explicit in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, marking the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum:

“Furthermore, a person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the sacred scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a great precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.”

Bennett assures us that he didn’t “play the milk money.” Eight million dollars, however, would buy a lot of milk for a lot of hungry children.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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