For some reason, there’s a stereotype about Catholics and gambling that says all of us play bingo. Nobody knows where it came from, and nobody knows why anyone chooses to believe it. It’s probably true that some of us play bingo, but certainly not the majority. It’s a lighthearted stereotype and isn’t particularly offensive, but it does lead us on to a bigger question – should Catholics gamble at all, and does the Catholic Church consider gambling to be a sin?
Historically, gambling has always been seen as a vice more than a sin – and in some countries and regions, it’s such a major vice that it’s illegal. It’s a lot easier to gamble than it used to be. Years ago, you used to have to make a choice to walk into a casino or bookmakers. Now, the advent of online slots websites and online casinos means that most people have access to gambling all day, every day. The technology that drives those online slots websites has advanced to the point that it’s now even possible to play UK slots through your mobile phone handset. That means that the temptation to gamble has probably never been stronger – but does giving in to it constitute a specific sin?
This is a difficult question, and one that theologians and scholars have been debating for some time. Go online and look for answers, and you’ll find that people were debating the issue strongly in the Washington Post more than forty years ago. A lot of people assume that the Bible specifically prohibits gambling. That’s a mistake. You can go through the Bible from cover to cover, and you won’t specifically find gambling condemned anywhere. If all gambling was banned, your local church wouldn’t be able to do things like run raffles or tombolas to raise money for repairs or community initiatives. Raffles and such contests tend to have small stakes, though. Should we make a distinction between low-stakes gambling or high-stakes gambling, and if so, where does that distinction come?
For a question like this, the best way to find an answer is to go directly to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and see if it holds any guidance for us – and fortunately for us, it does! You’ll find it under #2413, which expressly tells us that games of chance and wagers are not, in and of themselves contrary to justice as the Catholic Church understands it. Unfair wagers are said to be ‘a grave matter,’ as is cheating at the games, but those are questions of the morality of the person operating the game and the morality of the person playing it. The mechanism can be sinful, but the act cannot.
This does not, however, mean that Catholics have the right to go forth and gamble as much as they wish. We’re as free to spend our money on gambling as we are on any other hobby or form of entertainment that delights us, but we must do so in accordance with the same principles that guide us in every other aspect of our lives. Someone who is placing a bet for the sake of entertainment, and seeing if their luck is in, is doing nothing wrong so long as they can afford to lose the stake they’ve placed on the bet. If the money they’re using to place the bet is money that ought to be used for something more important, though, we have to look at things from a different perspective.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does permit gambling, it does so with a warning. In very plain text, it states that it becomes morally unacceptable to gamble when doing so deprives the gambler of the means to provide for themselves, or for others who depend on them. In other words, if you’re gambling with money that you need to keep a roof over your head, keep your house warm, or keep food on the table for yourself or your family, you’ve crossed the line into sinful behavior. This is common-sense advice, and it’s a conclusion that any good Catholic should be able to come to on their own without needing to seek counsel from a priest.
Losing more money than you can afford to lose is one way to make gambling sinful, but you may also wish to consider the value you place on staking a bet even if you can afford to lose the money. Consider your motivation for gambling in the first place. Are you doing it because it’s a form of entertainment to you, or are you doing it because you’re thrilled by the prospect of winning a huge amount of cash in return for your stake? If it’s the latter, think about the possibility that your true motivation is actually greed or avarice. You don’t need us to tell you what the Bible says about greed and avarice, and therefore you also don’t need us to tell you that you shouldn’t be allowing greed-driven motives to creep into your life.
Ultimately, Catholics are as free to win and lose money as anyone else who indulges in gambling on occasion. We’re allowed to enjoy the excitement that comes as part and parcel of taking a small risk so long as the risk is exactly that – small. When the risks become too big, or the stakes become too high, a line has been crossed, and behavior should be corrected. If you, reading this information right now, feel like you may already have crossed that line, be neither afraid nor ashamed to ask for help. There are various avenues available to people who are dealing with gambling problems, and your own church should be able to either provide support directly or put you in touch with somebody who can.
Don’t feel guilty about buying the occasional lottery ticket. Don’t feel bad about playing bingo (even if you are perpetuating a stereotype!), and don’t feel morally compromised if you’re playing cards for money with friends – so long as doing so is within the law where you live. Online slots websites aren’t sinful places either. As with so many things, sin comes more from the motivation than the act. Gambling is not considered a sin by the Catholic church – and nor will it ever be.