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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 29 Jun 2002

morals,ethics QUESTION from Ewart Harris December 28, 1998 I am a Catholic in Jamaica and we have been criticised here by protestant because of the Church's silence on issues such as Gambling, the use of Tobacco and Alcohol etc. There are members of our Church who smoke Tobacco and drink Alcohol. There are also members who are involved in the Gaming industry. For example we have members who sell the local Lottery, there is one member who owns and operate a Betting Business in the Horse Racing industry. Could you tell me the Church's teaching on these matters and what is the biblical and or other doctrine?
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on December 28, 1998 Dear Ewart:
These are good questions. I will begin by giving you the short answers as to the Church's teaching on this, and then qualify that essential teaching with some statements from St. Francis deSales (the Great Doctor of the Church) and other thoughts.
On Alcohol and Tobacco:
The Catechism #2290 states:
The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others' safety on the road, at sea, or in the air. The Catechism #2291 goes on to say that the use of drugs outside of a therapeutic reason is a grave offense.
These canons are part of a section in the Catechism dealing with the Fifth Commandment: Thou shall not kill.
The Church teaches that sin can occur not only when a person is literally killed without justification, but also in metaphorical killing. We know that Jesus taught a metaphoric killing when he said in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said of the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say unto you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; Taking from the 5th Commandment its essential message of respect to life, the Church extends that message to teaches that we are to have respect for the dignity of persons, including ourselves. Thus violations of this respect for the dignity of persons, such as scandal, employers not safeguarding the heath of their employees (or a nation of its citizens, or a business its customers), or our disrespect of ourselves by over-indulgence in food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine, disrespect for human beings in scientific research, crimes against bodily integrity (such as kidnapping, hostage taking, terrorism, torture, non-therapeutic amputations, mutilations, sterilizations performed on innocent persons, and disrespect for the dead and dying are all sinful.
Sins against the safeguarding of peace also fall under this commandment such as revengeful anger, deliberate hatred, acts working against peace through justice and charity, and not working to avoid war are also sins against the 5th Commandment.
So within this context of the Church's teaching on the 5th Commandment we are to have a respect for health (others and our own).
Over-indulgence of alcohol or tobacco, therefore, is sinful, but in moderation is not.
The Bible does condemn drunkenness (Eph 5:18; Gal 5:19)…drunkenness is sinful.
On Gambling: Gambling comes under the teaching for the 7th Commandment: You shall not steal. This has to do with respect for the goods of others.
Catechism # 2413 states:
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 enslavement. Unfair wagers 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. So gambling in-and-of-itself is not sinful unless there is cheating going on, or the setting up of a unfair game, or a person gambles away the rent money, in which case sin is involved, perhaps even grave sin.
St. Francis de Sales says about gambling:
Games of dice, cards, and the like in which winning depends principally on chance are not only dangerous as recreations … but are of their own simple nature bad and reprehensible…But, you will ask, what great harm can there be in them? Gain is not acquired at these games by reason but by chance, which often falls to one whose ability or industry deserves nothing. This in itself is an offense against reason. But even though alcohol, tobacco, and gambling are not inherently sinful on their face, that DOES NOT MEAN that they are good things to do.
We must remember the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12:
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. A little later in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (10:23) he added another element to the equation: All things are lawful, but not all things build up.
In other words, because these things are technically not sin if done in moderation, doesn't mean we should indulge in them.
All three activities (alcohol, tobacco, gambling) are HIGHLY addictive behaviors. St. Paul says don't let your freedom enslave (addict) you. All three of these activities can easily tear down and be less than helpful to heath, marriage, children, co-workers, friends, and self. St. Paul says don't let your freedom lead you to unhelpful or destructive behavior.
Another element of prudence here, is that as Christians we are to be a light unto the world, an example. To do that we must be counter-cultural. While we are in this world we are not of the world and should stand apart from the world in such a way that testifies to Christ.
Especially given our alcoholic society, my personal opinion is that prudence would lead us to no drink alcohol at least in the let's get a drink kind of attitude that is typical of the world. We need to set the example of sobriety and of being filled with the Spirit, not drunk with spirits.
Especially given the medical evidence concerning smoking and the conventional wisdom that smokers are almost always addicted, my personal opinion is that prudence would lead us to not smoke, at least on anything more than rare occasions. We need to set an example of mastery over our indulgences.
Especially given the severe damage of our society and the destruction of so many families, and the severe addictiveness of gambling, my personal opinion is that prudence will lead us to not gamble, even bingo. We need to set an example of generosity, not greed; reason, not mindless indulgence, of being submitted to the Spirit not compelled by the game.
St. Francis de Sales taught against wagering on games of chance as being opposed to reason. Wagering on things for which a person could affect the outcome – like a game of chess – was okay because one's skill and knowledge is being put to the test. It is not chance.
Personally, I think it is imprudent to own a betting business for it facilitates the possibility of sinful behavior in gambling. I don't think Christians should be in a business that exploits the vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and even potential sins of the people. But that is personal opinion.
Technically, these activities in-and-of-themselves are not sinful.
The people who are treating tobacco, alcohol, and gambling as if it is an automatic mortal sin are being scrupulous and inappropriate. There is NO Biblical evidence to ban these activities entirely. The Bible condemns over-indulgence, excess, drunkenness, irresponsibility, and self-destructiveness. While it is true that these activities can lead to all that, they don't have to.
The proper attitude toward these things comes not from the direction of sinfulness (unless excessive), but from prudence. Something can be imprudent and yet not sinful. This is what St. Paul was trying to tell us in 1 Corinthians. By the way, St. Paul told this to the Church in Corinth because the people at that Church were exploiting their freedom and indulging in all sorts of imprudent things.
Bottom line, these things are not inherently sinful; but they may indeed be inherently imprudent.
I would suggest for all devout Christians, that God (and the Church) calls us to excellence and to prudence and not to something less.
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