Is Gambling a Sin?

poker and diceMy Baptist friend says that gambling is a sin. Yet, I know many good Catholics who visit places like Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and play slot machines and the like, or schools that have casino nights as fund raisers. What should I say to my friend?

Gambling, whether it involves games of chance (e.g. card games), wagers or betting, or even lotteries, is not intrinsically evil (Catechism, no. 2404). However, a person may only engage in these activities with a strict adherence to virtue. First, he must act with temperance, whereby he keeps his passions and emotions under the control of reason, acts with moderation and uses material goods in a good way and in accord with the circumstances of his life.

Second, the virtue of justice governs both the game itself as well as the person playing the game. The game must be fair and all players must have an equal chance of winning. In justice, the player’s gambling must not prevent him from meeting his obligations to support himself or his family, pay his debts or fulfill other responsibilities.

Consequently, a person must be careful not to become addicted to gambling because of its excitement or the possibility of making “quick, easy, big money.” He must not risk money that is necessary for the livelihood of himself or those entrusted to his care. Moreover, a gambler should always weigh whether that money could be better used for something of clear, tangible benefit. Even a wealthy person who may have great disposable income must use moderation, recognizing that the money risked on frivolous gambling could be used to help those less fortunate.

With this foundation in mind, several “classic” rules govern gambling:

1. A player must be free to dispose of the stakes wagered in the game. He must be able to accept the risk of losing the stakes without incurring harm to himself or to others. Basically, the stakes should be “disposable” money.

2. The player must make the gamble with full knowledge and consent.

3. All players must have an equal chance of winning.

4. The game must be fair. All fraud or deception is prohibited.

5. While everyone enjoys winning, the motive for playing the game should be one of pleasure rather than of gain. One must not depend upon gambling for one’s livelihood. (Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology).

Even if one conscientiously follows these rules, he must always remain on guard. While gambling can be fun, it can also be very addictive. In a recent study, Harvard Medical School found that 1.29 percent of the adult population in America are pathological gamblers: this equates to 2.2 million addicted gamblers. Another 4 percent are considered “problem gamblers.” Such addiction is a spiritual enslavement that a person allows to happen.

Besides addiction, a spiritual problem emerges when a person thinks he can make the quick, easy, big money gambling rather than by simply working hard. Here he accepts great risks that could have dire consequences. Such a condition deteriorates when a person loses money he should use for himself or his family, and even accrues greater debt.

Be on guard, because gambling is a prevalent, luring, big business. In 1999, the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey estimated that betting on that year’s Denver-Atlanta Super Bowl reached $4 billion not including side bets and office pools. (Who knows what it was this year.) As of 1999, 37 states and the District of Columbia sponsored lotteries, and 26 states have legalized some form of casino gambling. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Americans spend $600 billion annually in legal gambling operations, at least $100 billion more than they spend for food. The revenues of the gambling industry continue to rise each year, and are becoming more tempting. Currently, the Maryland legislature is considering having slot machines to raise revenue for the state.

When I was studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia back in 1981, two fellow seminarians and I ventured to Atlantic City when we had a free weekend. Of course, we wanted to see this attraction, which was new at the time. I think we planned to spend $20 on the quarter slot machines, of course winning a little, losing a little, but in the end losing everything. Granted there was that temptation to keep going, thinking, “The next one will be the jackpot,” but we held to the limit. I was appalled though by how many people spent hours loading the slot machines with multiple coins. Worse yet, I remember watching the action at a poker table and seeing the well-dressed, distinguished manager approach one of the players with a document to sign, which basically mortgaged his home. While I am sure most people had kept their self-control and had fun, never really expecting to win, I wonder how many went away sad, regretting their actions. Herein we see the problem of gambling.

St. Augustine said, “The Devil invented gambling.” Maybe so. Remember, as Our Lord hung on the cross, the Roman soldiers threw dice to see who would get His tunic, seeking only their own benefit while being oblivious to the greater good (Jn 19:24). Granted, there is nothing wrong with gambling as long as it is kept within the confines of virtue. Nevertheless, one must always be very careful and vigilant.


This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

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Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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