The most basic thing to say about gambling is that it is a luxury.  Luxuries, for Christians, are not intrinsically immoral but often are morally questionable.  It is intrinsically immoral to spend money and time and effort pursuing luxuries before we have secured the necessities of life for ourselves and for those for whom we are responsible.  It is also immoral to spend money and time and effort pursuing luxuries without devoting some of the wealth that exceeds our basic needs to assist others less fortunate than ourselves.  A person, however, may be so wealthy that he has all that he needs for himself and his family and so that he also is generous to those less fortunate than himself.  In such cases, it is morally tolerable to spend some of his superfluity on idle amusements and on luxuries.

The morally tolerable, of course, is not necessarily noble or deeply admirable.  It is more noble to buy a simple, inexpensive, reliable vehicle rather than an expensive and luxurious vehicle.  It is more noble to eschew expensive jewelry, to live modestly, and to increase one’s benefactions and charitable giving.  But one might have a job or a social position or an artificially stimulated taste for luxuries that makes them difficult to forego.  And so, again, luxuries are tolerable but not particularly admirable.

Gambling is such a luxury.  Human life does not require that I gamble with some of my excess.  Gambling does not even improve the comfort and ease of life, as many luxuries do.  Gambling is simply an amusement, an activity that some people find an agreeable or stimulating way to pass time.  Some people enjoy spending money and time playing golf.  Some people enjoy spending money and time collecting match boxes.  Some people enjoy spending money and time gambling.

I do recall some years ago a priest who was also a volunteer fireman in upstate New York.  The volunteer fire department raised funds by, among other things, running a weekly bingo game.  Father Rice helped run the game for a time.  He stopped, eventually, because he said that he found the experience disturbing:  the gamblers seemed to him to be grim, often compulsive, and utterly and completely joyless.  Nobody was gambling the children’s lunch money or risking the next month’s mortgage on fire department bingo.  Nonetheless, the amusement didn’t really seem to amuse, and for many it seemed an unhealthy addiction.

But the abuse of a thing does not mean it has no legitimate use.  The negative potential of gambling – and of all luxuries – means not that they are intrinsically immoral, but that they can be or become circumstantially harmful.

Now in a well-ordered society, the state should not encourage luxuries and might well regulate and tax them by way of encouraging more noble and positive uses for wealth.  In the case of gambling, to give an example, state regulation and taxation of a lottery might raise funds for public purposes, which could be a good thing.  A person not much attracted to gambling as such might enjoy it more if the profits therefrom were devoted to charity or to public needs.  In such a case the most ignoble fact of gambling – that it consumes wealth that could be used to help others more – is removed.

Even in the case of a state lottery or of gambling to benefit a charity, however, public advertising of the gambling is regrettable, because the advertising encourages people to indulge in a luxury.  To tolerate, regulate, and tax is one thing, but to encourage is another.  The state may have an interest in regulating the manufacture and sale of alcohol and in taxing it heavily.  Advertising and encouraging the consumption of alcohol would be another and much more suspect thing.

Betting on a sure thing is not moral, unless the gambler discloses that his bet is certain.  In such a case the person against whom the bettor bets, if he persists in the bet, may be assumed to intend a gift to the bettor.

In some people, in addition, gambling can be an encouragement of superstition.  Gamblers often develop odd fetishes or compulsive rituals.  Christians in general and pastors and spiritual directors in particular should consider this tendency and its dangers.

So gambling is not intrinsically immoral.  At best gambling is a relatively harmless luxury for those with a surplus of wealth, while at worse it can be quite harmful.

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