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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 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.
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.
Theologians commonly require four conditions so that gaming may not be illicit.
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. Time bargains, difference transactions, options, and other speculative dealings on the exchanges, which are so common nowadays, add to the malice of gambling special evils of their own. They lead to the disturbance of the natural prices of commodities and securities, do grave injury to producers and consumers of those commodities, and are frequently attended by such unlawful methods of influencing prices as the dissemination of false reports, cornering, and the fierce contests of "bulls" and "bears", i.e. of the dealers who wish respectively to raise or lower prices.
Hitherto we have prescinded from positive law in our treatment of the question of gambling. It is, however, a matter on which both the civil and the canon law have much to say. In the United States the subject lies outside the province of the Federal Government, but many of the Sates make gambling a penal offence when the bet is upon an election, a horse-race, or a game of chance. Betting contracts and securities given upon a bet are often made void. In England the Gaming Act, 1845, voids contracts made by way of gaming and wagering; and the Gaming Act, 1892, renders null and void any promise, express or implied, to pay any person any sum of money under, or in respect of, any contract or agreement rendered null and void by the Gaming Act, 1845, or to pay any sum of money by way of commission, fee, reward, or otherwise, in respect of any such contract or agreement, or of any services in relation thereto or in connection therewith.
From very early times gambling was forbidden by canon law. Two of the oldest (41, 42) among the so-called canons of the Apostles forbade games of chance under pain of excommunication to clergy and laity alike. The 79th canon of the Council of Elvira (306) decreed that one of the faithful who had been guilty of gambling might be, on amendment, restored to communion after the lapse of a year. A homily (the famous "De Aleatoribus") long ascribed by St. Cyprian, but by modern scholars variously attributed to Popes Victor I, Callistus I, and Melchiades, and which undoubtedly is a very early and interesting monument of Christian antiquity, is a vigorous denunciation of gambling. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), by a decree subsequently inserted in the "Corpus Juris", forbade clerics to play or to be present at games of chance. Some authorities, such as Aubespine, have attempted to explain the severity of the ancient canons against gambling by supposing that idolatry was often connected with it in practice. The pieces that were played with were small-sized idols, or images of the gods, which were invoked by the players for good luck. However, as Benedict XIV remarks, this can hardly be true, as in that case the penalties would have been still more severe.
Profane writers of antiquity are almost as severe in their condemnation of gambling as are the councils of the Christian Church. Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus tell us that by gambling men are led into fraud, cheating, lying, perjury, theft, and other enormities; while Peter of Blois says that dice is the mother of perjury, theft, and sacrilege. The old canonists and theologians remark that although the canons generally mention only dice by name, yet under this appellation must be understood all games of chance; and even those that require skill, if they are played for money.
The Council of Trent contented itself with ordering all the ancient canons on the subject to be observed, and in general prescribed that the clergy were to abstain from unlawful games. As Benedict XIV remarks, it was left to the judgment of the bishops to decide what games should be held to be unlawful according to the different circumstances of person, place, and time. St. Charles Borromeo, in the first Synod of Milan, put the Tridentine decree into execution, and drew up a list of games which were forbidden to the clergy, and another list of those that were allowed. Among those which he forbade were not only dicing in various forms, but also games something like our croquet and football. Other particular councils declared that playing at dice and cards was unbecoming and forbidden to clerics, and in general they forbade all games which were unbecoming to the clerical state. Thus, a council held at Bordeaux in 1583 decreed that the clergy were to abstain altogether from playing in public or in private at dice, cards, or any other forbidden and unbecoming game. The council held at Aix in 1585 forbade them to play at cards, dice or any other game of the like kind, and even to look on at the playing of such games. Another, held at Narbonne in 1609, decreed that clerics were not to play at dice, cards, or other unlawful and unbecoming games, especially in public.
There was some doubt as to whether chess was to be considered an unbecoming, and therefore, an unlawful, game for clerics. In the opinion of St. Peter Damian it was certainly unlawful. On one occasion he caught the Bishop of Florence playing chess, to while away the time when on a journey. The bishop tried to defend himself by saying that chess was not dice. The saint, however, refused to admit the distinction, especially as the bishop was playing in public. Scripture, he said, does not make express mention of chess, but it is comprised under the term dice. And Baronius defends the saint's doctrine. Some sciolist, he remarks, may say that St. Peter Damian was under a delusion in classing chess under dice, since chess is not a game of chance but calls for the exercise of much skill and talent. Let that be as it may, he proceeds, priests must at any rate be guided in their conduct by the words of St. Paul, who declared that what is not expedient, what is not edifying, is not allowed.
Modern ecclesiastical law is less exacting in this matter. The provincial Councils of Westminster are content with prescribing that clerics must abstain from unlawful games. The Plenary School of Maynooth, held in 1900, says that since not a little time is occasionally lost, and idleness is fostered by playing cards, the priest should be on his guard against such games, especially where money is staked, lest he incur the reproach of being a gambler. He is also exhorted to deter the laity by word and example from betting at horse-races, especially when the stakes are high. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore made a distinction between games which may not suitably be indulged in by a cleric, even when played in private, and games like cards which may be played for the sake of innocent recreation. It repeated the prohibition of the First Plenary Council of Baltimore that clerics are not to indulge in unlawful games, and only in moderation are to use those that are lawful, so as not to cause scandal. Nowadays, it is commonly held that positive ecclesiastical law only forbids games of chance, even to the clergy, when in themselves or for some extrinsic reason, such as loss of time or scandal, they are forbidden by the natural law.
FERRARIS, Prompta Bibliotheca, s. v. Ludus (Paris 1861); BENEDICT XIV, De Synodo diocesana (Ferrari, 1756); HEFELE, Conciliengeschichte (Freiburg, 1873), I; SLATER, A Manual of Moral Theology (New York, 1908), I; Ecclesiastical Review (New York, 1905), XXXII, 134; THOMASSIN, Vetus Eccl. Disciplina, III, III, cc. Xlv, xlvi; DESHAYES, in VACANT, Dict. de Théol. cath., s. v. Aléatoires.