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Is it OK to bet on who the next pope will be?

Is it OK to bet on who the next pope will be?

It’s one of the unenumerated rules of the Internet that if you can think of it, you can bet on it online. Apparently, people have been betting on Pope Benedict XVI’s successor for months via the gambling clearinghouse sites Paddy Power and William Hill Plc (sure, the pope’s resignation may have shocked the world, but the good people at Paddy Power were kicking around the idea as early as August). While there’s no odds-on favorite in the field, the oddsmakers are partial toward the African Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana and Francis Arinze of Nigeria (the latter a contender at the last papal conclave in 2005), as well as Marc Ouellet of Canada and Angelo Scola of Italy. Betters looking for a dark horse might consider Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (10 to 1) or Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (12 to 1). Or, if you’re interested in throwing money away, you can bet on noted atheist Richard Dawkins, whose odds Paddy Power has cheekily pinned at 666 to 1.

There’s no Nate Silver for papal elections, and no way to unskew the polls when there is none — aside from a closed session of cardinals that doesn’t end until the pope has been chosen. (In a Silver-esque bid to do the "cardinal math," NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli crunched the numbers today on conclave attendees and concluded, contrary to what the oddsmakers are predicting, that the next pope will be European.) The logic behind the odds on sites like Paddy Power seems to be drawn from the discussion around the previous conclave, along with policy and demographic trends in the Catholic Church. In a way, then, the church has set the bar for betting here. But what does the church have to say about actually putting money down on the pope’s successor?

The interesting wrinkle here is that usually the pope has to die for a successor to be selected — and betting on someone dying seems pretty unethical, not to mention just plain tacky. But Benedict is stepping down. Does that make it okay?

There’s discord among Catholic dioceses over whether gambling is sinful or morally wrong. Aside from an ambiguous pronouncement about how "the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement," practice varies by diocese — it is prohibited by some, generally discouraged by others, and endorsed for small-scale charitable purposes by still others (personally, I remember church raffles growing up in California). In his 1995 book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, J. Robertson McQuilkin takes the hard-line approach, citing the connections between gambling and criminal elements and the hazards of addiction:

In light of the way gambling has worked out in the life of the nation, it seems the most responsible position for the Christian is total abstinence, opposition to any form of church-sponsored gambling, and cooperation with all people of good sense in opposing state-operated lotteries and pari-mutuel betting.

Kathy Coffey, author of The Best of Being Catholic, struck a more moderate tone. "Seems like a fun riff on a serious process," she said when reached for comment about the papal betting. "Maybe it’s a good reminder that the future rests in much larger, steadier hands than ours."

So Catholics, if you want to put money down on your local cardinal, maybe just ask your priest first if he’ll want you to confess later.