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March Madness, brackets and office pools: What the Church teaches about gambling

march madness


John Burger - published on 03/21/19

Catholic teaching allows some leeway, but cautions against excesses.

March Madness is here, and that means office pools.

But for some people, is the temptation to gamble an occasion of sin?

The Catholic Church does not consider gambling to be intrinsically evil, according to a document issued by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference when that state was considering legalizing riverboat gambling in the 1990s. “In fact, we recognize that properly controlled, gambling can have positive aspects, such as the provision of legitimate recreation, the generation of funds for acceptable causes, and in some cases, the enhancement of local economies,” the document says. It continues:

Traditional Catholic teaching maintains that gambling is morally acceptable when all of the following conditions are met:
  • The money or possessions wagered are not needed to support one’s family or to fulfill other just obligations.
  • A person participates freely.
  • The revenues derived from gambling are not used to support any illegal or immoral enterprise.
  • The games of chance are operated fairly and every participant has an equal chance of winning or losing.

Or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, games of chance or wagers 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.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia also delineates how gambling can be an morally neutral activity, as long as things are kept in proper perspective. “On certain conditions, and apart from excess or scandal, it is not sinful to stake money on the issue of a game of chance any more than it is sinful to insure one’s property against risk, or deal in futures on the produce market,” the Encyclopedia says.

The Encyclopedia then goes into a long history of Catholic teaching on gambling. It points out that canon law had originally banned the practice. The Fourth Lateran Council, in the year 1215, forbade clerics to play or to be present at games of chance.

“Some authorities, such as Aubespine, have attempted to explain the severity of the ancient canons against gambling by supposing that idolatry was often connected with it in practice,” the encyclopedia explains. “The pieces that were played with were small-sized idols, or images of the gods, which were invoked by the players for good luck. However, as Benedict XIV remarks, this can hardly be true, as in that case the penalties would have been still more severe.”

In the wake of the Council of Trent, however, we find an easing up on the blanket ban. The 16th-century council ordered that all the ancient canons on the subject were to be observed, but Pope Benedict XIV left it to the judgment of bishops to decide what games should be held to be unlawful according to the different circumstances of person, place, and time. St. Charles Borromeo then drew up a list of games that were forbidden to the clergy, and another list of those that were allowed.

“Among those which he forbade were not only dicing in various forms, but also games something like our croquet and football,” the encyclopedia, originally published in 1913, says. “Other particular councils declared that playing at dice and cards was unbecoming and forbidden to clerics, and in general they forbade all games which were unbecoming to the clerical state.”

Thus, a council held at Bordeaux in 1583 decreed that the clergy were to abstain altogether from playing in public or in private at dice, cards, or any other forbidden and unbecoming game. The council held at Aix in 1585 forbade them to play at cards, dice or any other game of the like kind, and even to look on at the playing of such games. Another, held at Narbonne in 1609, decreed that clerics were not to play at dice, cards, or other unlawful and unbecoming games, especially in public. There was some doubt as to whether chess was to be considered an unbecoming, and therefore, an unlawful, game for clerics. In the opinion of St. Peter Damian it was certainly unlawful. On one occasion he caught the Bishop of Florence playing chess, to while away the time when on a journey. The bishop tried to defend himself by saying that chess was not dice. The saint, however, refused to admit the distinction, especially as the bishop was playing in public. Scripture, he said, does not make express mention of chess, but it is comprised under the term dice. And Baronius defends the saint’s doctrine. Some sciolist, he remarks, may say that St. Peter Damian was under a delusion in classing chess under dice, since chess is not a game of chance but calls for the exercise of much skill and talent. Let that be as it may, he proceeds, priests must at any rate be guided in their conduct by the words of St. Paul, who declared that what is not expedient, what is not edifying, is not allowed.

In the modern we have the provincial Councils of Westminster, which merely stated that clerics must abstain from unlawful games.

The Plenary School of Maynooth, held in 1900, says that since not a little time is occasionally lost, and idleness is fostered by playing cards, the priest should be on his guard against such games, especially where money is staked, lest he incur the reproach of being a gambler. He is also exhorted to deter the laity by word and example from betting at horse races, especially when the stakes are high. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore made a distinction between games which may not suitably be indulged in by a cleric, even when played in private, and games like cards which may be played for the sake of innocent recreation. It repeated the prohibition of the First Plenary Council of Baltimore that clerics are not to indulge in unlawful games, and only in moderation are to use those that are lawful, so as not to cause scandal. Nowadays, it is commonly held that positive ecclesiastical law only forbids games of chance, even to the clergy, when in themselves or for some extrinsic reason, such as loss of time or scandal, they are forbidden by the natural law.
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