The current public discussion of riverboat gambling in Pennsylvania has
prompted the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference to review the moral and
social issues related to the topic of gambling and to offer this
statement as a guide to future deliberations on this important issue.
There are two major aspects to the consideration of gambling. The
first is the theological or moral aspect. From this perspective, we need
to consider whether gambling is immoral in itself, or whether it is
morally neutral, but easily subject to circumstances which can
effectively render it immoral.
The second is the public policy and societal aspect. Here the subject
becomes more complex, leading us to consider the following questions:
- Will the expansion of gambling in Pennsylvania enhance the state's
revenues without adding to the state's social problems and law
- Will the state be able to regulate gambling so that organized
crime will not become involved?
- Will there be appropriate limits set to protect gamblers from
addiction and misuse of personal funds?
None of these questions is easy to answer and therefore each piece of
proposed legislation will need to be carefully evaluated.
THEOLOGICAL AND MORAL PERSPECTIVES
We wish to clarify, first of all, that the Catholic Church, according
to its traditional theology does not consider gambling to be
intrinsically evil. 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. There are, however, certain
principles governing the intentions of the person who gambles as well as
the structure of the activity itself which determine its morality in
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.
The recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church
succinctly expresses Catholic teaching as follows:
"2413 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 wages 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."
PUBLIC POLICY AND SOCIETAL PERSPECTIVES
In sharing the Catholic theological perspective on gambling, we are
also aware of and very concerned about other important and related
aspects of the issue that would serve to make specific pieces of
gambling legislation morally unacceptable. We believe that the promotion
of the common good of society and the protection of individual rights is
always to be the primary goal of public policy. Accordingly, the
potential negative consequences of an expanded "culture of
gambling" need to be carefully evaluated.
Since gambling is itself morally neutral, but because issues related
to gambling can make it morally unacceptable, individuals who
participate in gambling are obliged to make conscientious, prudential
judgments about their activity. This applies as well to civil
governments which sponsor gambling and to the owners of gambling
establishments as it does to their patrons. For the same reasons,
protective criteria must be considered in the evaluation of
Some of these are as follows:
- The legislation should contain provisions for maintaining the
moral and legal integrity of the games. Such provisions should seek
to prevent the involvement of organized crime.
- There should be reasonable and enforceable safeguards in the
legislation to discourage the abuse of gambling by individuals.
These could include, for example, the placing of reasonable limits
on the amounts which can be wagered and the imposition of
restrictions on gambling credit.
- All or a significant portion of the tax revenues resulting from
gambling activity should be used for programs that benefit the
people of the state or those who reside in the communities where the
games are operated. However, civil governments should rely on
equitable tax policies and not excessively on tax revenues from
- The legislation should contain a local option provision which
enables the people to decide through referendum whether gambling
should be permitted in their local community.
- Prohibitions against underage gambling must be clearly stated in
the legislation and such prohibitions must be strictly enforced.
Legalized gambling which is not properly regulated involves
considerable risks to individuals and communities with possibly very
negative consequences. For this reason, if political leaders legalize
riverboat or other forms of gambling in Pennsylvania, they have the
obligation to minimize the dangers by safeguards like those recommended
above. Otherwise, responsible citizens and organizations should oppose
an expansion of legalized gambling in our Commonwealth.
Used with permission of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference