Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Taking the Gamble

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 05, 2011

I don’t usually get excited one way or another about gambling. But there is no question that it can ruin lives and, for some people, become a fixation which is perilously close to a real addiction. So can drinking alcoholic beverages, another potential destroyer that I don’t think should be banned. The reason, of course, is that these things are not intrinsically wrong, and the vast majority of people can both drink and gamble recreationally, with either neutral or even beneficial effects.

But this does not mean that the omni-competent State should be sponsoring and/or facilitating gambling, any more than it should be sponsoring drinking. It also doesn’t mean the State should be hypocritical enough to forbid many forms of gambling, such as online lotteries or prize drawings as a fundraising technique on non-profit web sites like, while widely advertising its own lotteries, with nearly an infinite variety of ways to spend your money to “play”. Fine-print notifications about where to get help do not impress me, and I find it odd that in Virginia and some other places, the lottery is promoted under the rubric of helping the public schools. Talk about a mixed message to American youth!

I’ll occasionally purchase a Mega Millions or a PowerBall ticket. I’ve been known to think about what I would do with the money if I won. Once a co-worker and I humorously tried to develop a system of financial use for lottery winnings which was so obviously charitable and yet so complex and multi-layered that “not even God” would be able to tell that we intended to keep a little aside for ourselves. All of this has been in good fun and in full recognition of the foolishness of being human, though I admit a minor pleasure in speculating on the winnings, and a minor disappointment when (once again) I lose.

Lose? No kidding. The odds of hitting the jackpot in one of the State-sponsored lotteries are far worse than the odds of being struck by lightning—twice! Believe me, if God wants you to win the lottery, He can cause you to find the winning ticket on the ground as easily as He can cause you to win with a ticket you’ve purchased—and if God were not involved, the difference in such astronomical odds would not be materially significant.

I’ve often wondered why God doesn’t manipulate the odds in these unfathomable lotteries to ensure that winnings will go to people likely to use the money for good. But of course, God doesn’t ordinarily interfere with the natural course of natural processes. His ways are not our ways. Providence is far more mysterious than that; and the odds of Providence working are one hundred percent. In other words, there are no odds with Providence. Providence is not a gamble.

Now just for the record, and as you might expect, both State-sponsored and State-licensed gambling have many detrimental side effects. Some argue that State involvement actually costs more than it raises for good causes. Here are a few points from the Get Government Out of Gambling initiative, sponsored by the Institute for American Values:

  • Low income households (incomes under $10,000) bet three times as much as high income households (incomes over $100,000)—hence the common, and quite correct, argument that State-sponsored gambling is, in effect, simply a tax on the poor.
  • Americans spend more on slot machines than on movies, baseball and theme parks combined.
  • In 2006 (the most recent year for which we have figures), Americans lost $91 billion on gambling.
  • Each year, problem gamblers in the United States cost about $5 billion in loss of productivity, social services, and losses to creditors.
  • Personal bankruptcies increase wherever governments legalize gambling, and by more than 100 percent in counties with legalized casinos.

Should you, as a Catholic, put this problem high on your list of concerns? Apart from bad personal experiences, very probably not. There are just so many more important things needing correction that a “40 Days for Fiscal Sobriety” campaign probably will not, and should not, gain much traction. But, within limits, different people are called to different battles. Therefore, just so you know: State facilitation and sponsorship of gambling appears to be a very big gamble indeed.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 07, 2011 5:55 PM ET USA

    I feel compelled to intervene here, lest people be led astray. One opinion of one saint does not settle a case. St. Francis de Sales, if he held (which I doubt) that every form of gambling is sinful always and everywhere, was certainly incorrect. The Church has never taught this and has, in constant practice, approved and even utilized many kinds of gambling, or games of chance, without any disapproval from bishops, popes or councils. Bingo, for example, is enormously widespread, and never condemned, and countless parishes raise money each year through raffles.

  • Posted by: Lahrye - Oct. 07, 2011 4:43 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the information about St. Francis De Sales, I did not realize gambling is 'intrinsically evil'. I live in a state where gambling is legal. It was proposed to specifically fund education in our state of Georgia. Unfortunately our education has not been reflective of all of those funds, we're still in the bottom ten of State Education Rankings.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 05, 2011 7:09 PM ET USA

    Actually you might have gone a bit too far in saying that gambling is not intrinsically evil. In his Intro to the Devout Life, de Sales specifically says that gambling is sinful because betting on chance is a sin against reason. Thus I have a lot of fun at the expense of ICKSP priests when they bring out their raffle tickets. De Sales is one of their patron saints.