A decade of interfaith amity and ecumenical dialogue has done nothing to blunt the differences between Protestans and Catholics on the question of gambling.
The poles-apart differences of the two Christian communions was dramatically illustrated this week at hearings of the District of Columbia Citizen's Gambling Study Commission, specifically its subcommittee on Moral and Religious Aspects of Legal and Illegal Forms of Gambling.
Protestant spokesmen said unequivocally that gambling - legal or illegal - is wrong.
Catholics asserted with equal certainty that gambling as such just isn't a moral question.
Gambling, said the Rev. Andrew Fowler, executive secretary of the Committee of One Hundred (Protestant) Ministers, "is diametrically opposed to these (spiritual) values, and is therefore a hindrance ot the complete fulfillment of manking."
In the Bible, he said, "God warns us to flee from and resist the gods who according to man's opinions preside over all matters in which chance is concerned. Let us not then be lured into the worship of the gods of gambling and the ceremonies conencted with it."
Furthermore, he said, "Gambling is immoral because the gamber tries to enrich himself by a skill that is unproductive and from which there is no gain for the common wealth."
The Rev. Michael Griffin of Catholic University took the opposite view. "In itself, gambling is an indifferent matter," he said. "It is neither good nor bad, it becomes good or bad according to the moral circumstances that surround the act of gambling."
Msgr. Ralph Kuehner, testifying on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington, concurred. Drawing heavily on the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Msgr. Kuehner said that it is the position of the Catholic Church that "a person is entitled to dispose of his own property as he wills, so long as in doing so the does not render himself incapable of fulfilling duties incumbent upon him by reason of justice or charity."
While gambling may be a luxury, in the Catholic view it "is not considered sinful except when the indulgence in it is inconsistent with duty," said Msgr. Kuehner, who heads the archdiocesan Social Development Office.
The Rev. Ernest Gibson, executive secretary of the District of Columbia Council of Churches, argued that gambling "is a very serious question" for a nation that defines itself as "one nation under God" in saluting its flag and that places "In God We Trust" on its coins.
"This nation, throughout its history, has used the Protestant work ethic to shape its attitude toward the development of independent, self motivated, responsible citizens," he said. "This nation has been built mainly by men and women who were willing to work for their livelihood."
These values, he continued, some from "the Bible as preached and taught by the Christian church. The scriptures clearly emphasize the moral value of work."
In the light of these considerations, he said, "gambling, legal or illegal, is anathema, an evil thing. It is the antithesis of work."
Both Catholic and Protestant representatives acknowledged, as did other speakers, problems which can arise from gambling - the influence of organized crime, the problems of the compulsive gambler, the draining off of poor people's money, the erosion of personal initiative.
It was a private citizne who posed one of the toughest questions of the evening when he challenged the basis for the hearings.
Craig Howell, who said he is a government economist, told the committee that in his opinion it is "unconstitutional to provide a forum for religious and theological debates in the formal decision-making process for our civil government."
Given First Amendment guarantees of church-state separation, he said, "It is grossly improper for any denomination or group of denominations to argue that our civil government must declare something illegal just because they believe it is immoral and sinful."
He acknoledged that religious leaders have every right to make their views known but added that such testimony "should not be weighted more heavily just because a group of ministers stands behind it."
His advice to the Committee on Moral and Religious Aspect - "Disand."