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The Feast of Saint James the Great
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If gambling is so bad, why do churches promote bingo and raffles?


Kees Jonker | CC BY 2.0

Jean Elizabeth Seah - published on 10/24/17

Done in excess, games of chance can become occasions of evil.

My father once dreamed of four numbers. Upon awaking, he considered buying a lottery ticket based on those numbers. “If I win, I’ll give half to the Church,” he thought.

Later, he said to himself, “Maybe I’ll give 40 percent to the Church and keep 60 percent for myself instead.”

Upon further reflection, he decided against the gamble. He had seen his own father lose too much to the vice of gambling, bringing suffering upon the whole family. Furthermore, he did not feel comfortable bargaining with himself about a suitable portion to donate. He felt the pangs of greed, and desisted.

The next morning, the winning ticket had those four numbers; contrary to all earthly wisdom, my father heaved a sigh of relief. He knew he had won something more precious than money – he could have fallen into the grip of gambling himself, leading his family into financial ruin.

“How do you know the dream was from the devil?” I asked.

“I don’t, but I know it definitely wasn’t from God!” said my father. “It is good to earn money fairly, through honest work, but it is not good to gamble and profit from nothing.”

While I was volunteering at a pro-life conference, a Protestant lady declined to buy a raffle ticket from me, saying she preferred to donate outright instead because she avoided all forms of gambling. This may seem rather Puritan, especially as the raffle was for a good cause.

However, after watching my boyfriend lose a significant amount at carnival games while trying to win a stuffed toy unicorn for me (he did win a bear), I feel like I am beginning to understand.

In The Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warns against the sin of gambling. He writes:

Dice, cards, and the like games of hazard, are not merely dangerous amusements, like dancing, but they are plainly bad and harmful, and therefore they are forbidden by the civil as by the ecclesiastical law. What harm is there in them? you ask. Such games are unreasonable:–the winner often has neither skill nor industry to boast of, which is contrary to reason. You reply that this is understood by those who play. But though that may prove that you are not wronging anybody, it does not prove that the game is in accordance with reason, as victory ought to be the reward of skill or labor, which it cannot be in mere games of chance. Moreover, though such games may be called a recreation, and are intended as such, they are practically an intense occupation. Is it not an occupation, when a man’s mind is kept on the stretch of close attention, and disturbed by endless anxieties, fears and agitations? Who exercises a more dismal, painful attention than the gambler? No one must speak or laugh,–if you do but cough you will annoy him and his companions. The only pleasure in gambling is to win, and this cannot be a satisfactory pleasure, since it can only be enjoyed at the expense of your antagonist.

Why, then, have Catholic churches often raised funds by hosting bingo nights? Was St. Ignatius wrong to have gambled a month’s freedom on a billiard game? What about priests and nuns who have won game shows or lotteries?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant. (CCC 2413)

As with many good created things, games of chance can become occasions of evil when indulged in excess – and as with drugs, you might start out thinking you’ll have a harmless bit of fun, and that you’re in control, but you can be sucked into a devastating whirlpool of loss before you know it. Gambling addicts regularly lose thousands. I have friends who lost their childhood homes or suffered broken families because their parents were compulsive gamblers.

Material wealth is a gift from God, as is everything which exists. We are meant to be good stewards of the property and talents bestowed on us in this brief life. Is it better to spend money on frivolous games for a mere chance at a prize, or to donate it to a worthy cause where it will definitely be of good use? Sometimes, as in a raffle for charity, this dichotomy is absent, but the question remains – is this game of chance worth it?

If you know someone who has a gambling problem, have them contact the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network (1-800-522-4700). May St. Cajetan, patron of gamblers, intercede for them to break free of their chains.

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