From a reader:
I have recently started dating a woman who is a devout Catholic. I was
baptized, but have fallen away from the church since I was young.
Since I have love her so much I decided to start attending mass again
because I knew it would make her happy. I went with an open mind and
am very happy about the decision. My question is this, I make my
living by playing professional poker. I do very well for myself. I
myself see nothing wrong with this. Gambling to me, is perfectly fine
as long as you don’t have a problem. I consider it in the same way I
think about alcohol. It is good and okay as long as you are
responsible. What is the Catholic church’s opinion on poker or
This is a little tricky. It is not for nothing that in archaic English games of chance were called games of “hazard”.
Full disclosure: I made a lot of money in my first year of college shooting pool at my dorm and elsewhere and I was known to shuffle a deck. Let’s just say I didn’t need a work/study job on campus. Like Dr. Maturin, I didn’t have qualms about skinning the annoying. Of course I wasn’t even a Catholic yet in those days. As a priest, I have had a few friendly wagers here and there, but nothing big or anywhere near what could be considered scandalous. In all my years I think I have spent less then $20 total on lottery tickets. Holy Church had severe canons about clerics and gambling and for very good reasons: for their own sake, for the sake of the goods of the Church, and to avoid scandal. Priests demonstrate time and again that they aren’t always very bright. Why would they be good gamblers?
As far as I know there is no biblical prohibition against gambling. In fact, I think Joshua threw lots in order to distribute property.
However, the gambling you describe involves your time and your money and repetition. The Lord has some serious words about the possibility of serving “two masters”. Furthermore, while it may be true that you are in complete “control” of this activity, and that it is not in control of you, that is, you are not addicted to gambling as many gamblers come to be, you may be putting yourself in the near occasion of sin, risking becoming addicted. It is a sin knowingly to place oneself in the near occasion of sin.
It could be argued that playing poker is hardly different from day-trading. Okay. Maybe so. However, playing cards is immediate and involves other people, some of whom may be addicted to the action. We can also participate in the sin of another person by our cooperation of providing the means or counsel or approval for their sin.
That said, gambling is not in itself sinful. The old Catholic Encyclopedia article provides some criteria. I urge you to read the whole article here, to see with what grave reserve gambling has been viewed by the Church and great saints through history. But here are the criteria:
Theologians commonly require four conditions so that gaming may not be illicit.
- 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.
- The gambler must act freely, without unjust compulsion.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I will add that when casinos began to open up in greater numbers, and bus trips were organized for seniors and advertisements began to draw young people into, for example, the wave of playing Texas Hold’em (a particularly energizing form of poker I might add), as a confessor I noted a sharp sharp increase in the number of people who began to have serious problems with gambling, and who were hurting themselves and their dependents. I am sure other priests noticed this as well.
In sum, I understand that the venom of certain highly poisonous snakes has beneficial medicinal uses in small doses. The collection of the venom can be more or less problematic. Don’t forget that the biblical account of the fall of man describes the Father of Lies as having appeared to our First Parents in the guise of a serpent.
Even snake handlers get snake bit.
UPDATE 1909 GMT:
All of this brings to my mind the hymn written many years ago by the official WDTPRS Parodohymnodist whose work we have enjoyed and even recorded. You will recall such hits as “O Come O Come Liturgical Blue”.
Here is just the first verse.
To the tune “The Church’s one foundation”.
The Church’s one foundation is B-I-N-G-O.
It is the one salvation from all the debt we owe.
And when foreclosure threatens we’ll play it every night,
for bigno pays the mortgage but also heat and light.
I hope I remembered that correctly.