Matters Arising: Gambling and Lotteries

Rev. Fr. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R

Fr. Nicholas answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

An Evangelical Protestant friend of mine asked me how Catholics can play the National Lottery — and even accept funding from it — in good conscience. Are not all forms of gambling the source of many evils?

The global condemnation of all forms of gambling — including lotteries — was once a mainstream view amongst Protestants. Today it can still be found in fundamentalist quarters, and in denominations such as the Salvation Army and Seventh Day Adventists, as well as among non-Christian groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Nonetheless, as social acceptance of gambling has grown, so general Protestant opposition to it has evolved to a point where it now resembles the more nuanced position that Catholics have always held. Social historian Ian Machin chronicles the stages of this shift in his Churches and Social Issues in Twentieth-Century Britain, describing the rearguard resistance by Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and others to every relaxation of the prohibitions on gambling in Protestant Britain. Fighting the reintroduction of a national lottery (abolished in 1826; reintroduced in 1994), statements of position such as the following were common:

‘Gambling,’ said a committee of the Free Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1964,‘is morally wrong, socially undesirable, and economically disastrous.’ The gambler was suspected as a person who might be trying to bypass an age-old correlation between honest toil and monetary reward in order to gain a lot in return for little expense. It seemed that, to this end, increasing numbers of people were playing a mean pinball in the 1960s. ‘His motive is to get much for little,’ reported the Committee on Temperance and Morals to the Church of Scotland General Assembly. ‘The Football Pool, the Bingo Club, the Totalisator, the Premium Bond, the bookmaker’s odds, all seek to exploit this motive. Such an outlook is a denial of the Christian’s true calling.’ To the list might have been added the church raffle.1

Today, on the contrary, the mainstream Protestant denominations have largely softened their views so as to condemn the abuse of gambling whilst admitting that it is not intrinsically wrong, and accepting that, for example, raffles, tombolas, and bingo evenings are lawful means to raise money. Most now welcome National Lottery funding for the repair and renovation of church buildings, too.2

Abuse does not take away right use

This coincides with what Catholics have always held, though an admission of that fact is conspicuously wanting on the non-Catholic side. The misuse of something does not mean that it cannot be well used (as with so many things, including the moderate consumption of alcohol). The Pontifical States ran a Lotteria Pontificia to boost the public coffers, and the Vatican still organises an occasional Christmas Lotteria di Beneficenza per le Opere di Carità del Papa in which various prizes (often gifts given to the Pope) are raffled so that funds can be raised for the papal charities.

‘[In 1727] the French monarchy granted privileges to three charitable lotteries in Paris and suppressed all other lotteries. These lotteries, known as thetrois petites loteries, operated continuously and perpetually to help fund [respectively] religious communities, build churches, and operate the Paris foundlings’ hospital.’ They were suppressed by Louis XVI in 1776 in favour of the new Royal Lottery, but the religious communities continued to receive funding from the latter until the Revolution.3

And older readers may recall the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, which funded Catholic hospitals in the Republic of Ireland. Its historian, Marie Coleman, writes that:

In Ireland, not only did the Roman Catholic Church have few objections to gambling, members of the clergy were the foremost proponents of sweepstakes as a source of fundraising. Conversely, the Protestant religions in Britain, and also in Ireland, were implacably opposed to the notion of funding charitable works with the proceeds of gambling. British reluctance to introduce a state sponsored lottery would continue until the National Lottery was introduced in 1994.4

Ts and Cs apply!

Summing up our position in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Fr. Thomas

Slater, S.J. begins with a definition:

Gambling, or gaming, is the staking of money or other thing of value on the issue of a game of chance. It thus belongs to the class of aleatory contracts, in which the gain or loss of the parties depends on an uncertain event. It is not gambling, in the strict sense, if a bet is laid on the issue of a game of skill like billiards or football. The issue must depend on chance, as in dice, or partly on chance, partly on skill, as in whist. Moreover, in ordinary parlance, a person who plays for small stakes to give zest to the game is not said to gamble; gambling connotes playing for high stakes.

Then he considers its morality:

In its moral aspect, although gambling usually has a bad meaning, yet we may apply to it what was said about betting. 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. As I may make a free gift of my own property to another if I choose, so I may agree with another to hand over to him a sum of money if the issue of a game of cards is other than I expect, while he agrees to do the same in my favour in the contrary event.

He notes that theologians commonly require four conditions so that gaming may not be illicit:

1. What is staked must belong to the gambler and must be at his free disposal. It is wrong, therefore, for the lawyer to stake the money of his client, or for anyone to gamble with what is necessary for the maintenance of his wife and children.

2. The gambler must act freely, without unjust compulsion.

3. There must be no fraud in the transaction, although the usual ruses of the game may be allowed. It is unlawful, accordingly, to mark the cards, but it is permissible to conceal carefully from an opponent the number of trump cards one holds.

4. Finally, there must be some sort of equality between the parties to make the contract equitable; it would be unfair for a combination of two expert whist players to take the money of a couple of mere novices at the game.

Fr. Slater concludes that:

If any of these conditions be wanting, gambling becomes more or less wrong; and, besides, there is generally an element of danger in it which is quite sufficient to account for the bad name which it has. In most people gambling arouses keen excitement, and quickly develops into a passion which is difficult to control. If indulged in to excess it leads to loss of time, and usually of money; to an idle and useless life spent in the midst of bad company and unwholesome surroundings; and to scandal which is a source of sin and ruin to others. It panders to the craving for excitement and in many countries it has become so prevalent that it rivals drunkenness in its destructive effects on the lives of the people. It is obvious that the moral aspect of the question is not essentially different if for a game of chance is substituted a horse-race, a football or cricket match, or the price of stock or produce at some future date. Although the issue in these cases seldom depends upon chance, still the moral aspect of betting upon it is the same in so far as the issue is unknown or uncertain to the parties who make the contract.5

And so we come to the specific form of gambling known as a lottery. Fr. Slater explains elsewhere that:

A lottery is a distribution of prizes by lot or chance. Those who take part in a lottery ordinarily pay down a smaller sum of money in consideration for the chance of obtaining a larger sum or something of greater value, but it may happen that they lose by the transaction. The event is settled by the casting or drawing of lots in some form or other. [...] Inasmuch as a lottery is nothing more than the purchase of an uncertain chance, it is not necessarily unjust or in any way contrary to the natural law.6

What about a National Lottery?

Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R. addresses the idea of a state-run lottery:

From the standpoint of the divine law there is no objection to a governmental lottery for the raising of funds for a good purpose, such as the assistance of charitable institutions. Of course, the supposition is that the conditions required for a lawful aleatory contract will be observed. These conditions, developed at length by moral theologians, require that perfect honesty be observed, that there be a reasonable proportion observed between the amount which a person contributes and the expectation of the prize or prizes — although a generous interpretation of this condition is allowed when the proceeds of the lottery are for public charity (cf. Merkelbach, Summa Theologiae Moralis [Paris, 1938], 2, no. 602) — and that there be effective restrictions to prevent people from unduly squandering their money.7

With regard to the latter point, we can say that something may be, or become a social ill without being wrong in itself. The lives of those who win the excessively large state lotteries are frequently destabilised and miserable, while the online nature of most modern gambling is highly addictive. The betting shops and websites have much to answer for, and though we cannot assert without qualification that all forms of gambling are the source of many evils, we can certainly say that, for many souls, gambling is an occasion of sin. The purpose of this article is to show that we can, for example, purchase a raffle or lottery ticket, attend a bingo evening, buy premium bonds or place a bet without sin as long as the conditions above are met, common sense is retained (and superstition avoided), and, above all, self-control is kept. Absent these restraints, gambling can lead to ruin in this world and the next just as surely as the misuse of any other creature. †

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1. G.I.T. Machin, Churches and Social Issues in Twentieth-Century Britain, Oxford, 1998 (O.U.P.), pp. 182–3.

2. Cf. Christian Organisations’ Policy On Gambling in Against the Odds, London, 2009 (Methodist Church and Salvation Army). (rev. ed.), p. 20.

3. Robert D. Kruckeberg, The Wheel of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century France: The Lottery, Consumption, and Politics, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2009, p.22.

4. Marie Coleman, ‘A Terrible Danger to the Morals of the Country: The Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake in Great Britain 1930– 87’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol. 105C, No. 5 (2005), p. 220.

5. Fr. Thomas Slater, S.J., Article ‘Gambling’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, 1909 (Robert Appleton Co.). An aleatory contract is ‘an agreement of which the effects, with respect both to the gains and losses, whether to all parties or to some of them, depend on an uncertain event.’ Definition in Jonathan Law (ed.), A Dictionary of Law, Oxford, 2015 (O.U.P.), 8th ed.

6. Fr. Thomas Slater, S.J. - A Manual of Moral Theology for English-Speaking Countries, London, 1925 (Burns, Oates & Washbourne), 5th rev. ed., vol. I, p. 353.

7. Fr. F.J. Connell, C.Ss.R., Father Connell answers Moral Questions, Washington, D.C. 1959 (CUA), Q. 44.