Sunday, January 31, 2010

Touching on Tithing

My sister-in-law and her husband have always given 10% of their income to the church. Four years ago, about 1 year into their marriage, their finances got very tight. With the arrival of their first baby, and some unexpected medical bills, they fell behind in their bills, and were forced to charge some expenses. My brother-in-law’s teaching salary (their only income) wasn’t able to pay off this debt, and for months they prayed as to whether they should give less to the church and put some of their money towards their debt. They prayerfully determined that they should continue to give to God what was rightfully His and trust that He would provide for their family. I’m sure it was very tempting to transfer several hundred dollars each month away from the collection basket and towards their medical bills, but they pressed on, giving God their first fruits each month.

Several months later, with no real improvement in their financial situation, my sister-in-law and her husband entered the “big-bucks” drawing at our church. Sure enough, Father pulled out their ticket, and they won $6,000 that night—this $6,000 was almost the exact amount of their unpaid medical bill debt. My 200+ pound brother-in-law had tears in his eyes as he gave our old, barely 5 foot tall Italian priest a bear hug. I don’t think Father Anthony ever witnessed such a grateful winner.

Our financial trust in God is most tested when it hurts a bit to give the money away each month. But it is at times like these when God really proves that he is never outdone in generosity.

Generosity, specifically with regard to our finances and money, is a very difficult area for many of us. A recent study conducted by the Barna Group found that Catholics were the least generous of any Christian denomination—giving less than 2% of their income to the church and other charitable organizations. Evangelicals were in the “elite” of givers, with 24% giving 10% or more of their income. The only groups that gave less than Catholics were atheists and agnostics.

Historically, Christians were called to tithe. A tithe is not synonymous with simply giving, but is a specific type of giving whereby we donate 10% of our income to the Church. There are differing views on how to define “income,” whether that means gross, net, pre-tax, post-tax, etc. I don’t intend to address that issue here. Let’s just settle on 10% of some reasonable definition of income. Also, many Christians tithing to be applicable to donations to both the Church other charitable organizations. This is another issue beyond the scope of this post.

While tithing isn’t a hard and fast requirement for Catholics, it is a tradition of our Church, reaching back even to the Israelites. As such, I will argue that we should only break from tithing for serious reasons.

The tithe is a barometer, so to speak, of what most of us should be giving. Some families may be blessed financially and be called to give more. Other families may struggle with poverty and be called to give less. But for most of us, the tithe is a good measuring stick of what we should be giving back to our church.

There are plenty of Scriptural references to tithing, many of which are found in the Old Testament. The early Church took the tithing requirement from the Old Law, first making it an obligation of conscience, and then an obligation via ecclesiastical enactment. The Catholic Encyclopedia provides the following:

The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the canons of the Council of Macon in 585. In the course of time, we find the payment of tithes made obligatory by ecclesiastical enactments in all the countries of Christendom. The Church looked on this payment as “of divine law, since tithes were instituted not by man but by the Lord Himself.” (C. 14, X de decim. III, 30) (emphasis added).

While the
New Testament doesn’t explicitly set an expectation of a tithe, it does require Christians to care for the poor and provide for their clergy, and I think St. Thomas makes an excellent point when he says: “…the people of the New Law are under greater obligations, according to Matthew 5:20, ‘Unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’”

After all, why should we give any less freely than those who were compelled to give?

Considering that we live in the richest society in the entire world, it is amazing that so few Catholics, and really so few Christians, take the call to financial generosity seriously. We put so much weight on material possessions, and our own personal desires, that most of us cannot give generously, or even sacrificially. Most of us do not budget 10% or even 5% of our income to charity. And yet we do budget money each month for things like a cell phone, a second car, dance classes for our child, cable television, a Netflix subscription, an internet connection, new clothes, dinners out, a cup of coffee each morning, a fast food trip, or even a nice bottle of wine. In our culture, these items are often viewed as necessities, and tithing is an afterthought.

I realize that this can be a very difficult topic in some marriages, particularly if finances are tight and there are many set expenses each month. A large mortgage, car payments, and other like expenses can make tithing seem impossible. I realize that nobody wants to move to a smaller house so they can tithe.

For this reason, it is obviously best to set up your finances with the assumption that you will give 10% as a tithe. But for many couples the decision to tithe comes after they bought the house and the car. If this is your situation, don’t just throw up your hands and say you can’t. Everyone can give something, so why not see what you really can give, even if that is only 1% or 2%, and then move in the direction of giving more over time. In a few years, you may be surprised how much more you are able to give.

So many of us have young growing families, and many of us are living off of one income. Most young families who are open to life are not exactly well off, but will struggle to pay their bills each month. With pressure to feed a growing family and put gas in our cars, it can seem impossible to commit to giving away a portion of our income each month, especially if that amount is 1/10 of our income.

And even if we decide we should give, with financial pressure comes a temptation to cut back on the amount we give, justifying it by saying things like: “God wants me to pay these medical bills now, not wait until next month.” “God wants me to save for my child’s education, that’s the more responsible thing to do.” “God wants me to make this house repair, after all, my primary responsibility is to provide for my family.” “It’s just one month, next month I’ll give 10%.” Unfortunately, as sinful human beings, most of us err on the side of giving less, not more of our income. Most of us, including myself, fall victim to these sorts of justifications when money is tight.

Many of these temptations can be avoided if you sit down with your spouse and budget a certain amount of your income each month to charitable giving. From past experience, I can say that we gave less when we didn’t budget for it each month. When you budget a certain portion of your income to charitable giving, it can become enjoyable to figure out what organizations will get that money. The money is no longer your money, but God’s money, and you really feel like a steward as you sit down and decide who will benefit from these funds.

The true spirit of tithing is to see the money we earn each month as God’s money, not our own. He has generously given to us, and we should graciously give back to him. But not just the leftovers. If the money is His, then God should receive his share first. That’s why the Scriptures refer to the “first fruits” of our labor being designated for God. This teaching is hard. But as my sister-in-law and her husband learned first hand, God is never outdone in generosity.


JesusThroughMary said...

At the risk of starting a rabbit hole:

How can one say that one has given God the first 10% if one gives from after-tax dollars? If Obama raises income taxes by 20%, then he has effectively taken dollars out of the collection plate by reducing the amount from which one would tithe. If, on the other hand, taxes are seen as an expense just like insurance or food, then shouldn't the tithe come first? A tax raise would then affect the budget analogously to an increase in food costs or insurance premiums - if you are intent on tithing, then you find the money somewhere else.

One more reason the American withholding system is so insidious, I suppose.

Karen said...

Your sister-in-law's family is a great testimony to how God blesses us when take a leap of faith and obey Him. Not that life is always perfect for the faithful, we do live in a fallen world with sinful people.

By living on faith you see God's work, not your own. Others see it too.

Think of the tithe as a starting point. It is the minimum. Even the least of us in America, have so much to share.

Debt hinders you, try to be as debt free as possible - you will be more open for God to use you.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate how humbly you bring up every day topics. I never feel that you are preachy--you lay out the facts and the Church teaching and then give your opinion. Thank you for that.

I personally feel called to pre-tax tithe, but my husband feels called to post-tax tithe. Since I am in charge of our finances, I tend to slightly over-estimate the post-tax tithe by including everything that I can think of, even gifts of cash or gift cards that would not be on our tax statements. This way, I can submit to my husband's decision and still get closer to that pre-tax tithe amount. We give to Catholic charities as well as our own parish and consider both tithing.

kathy said...

When my husband and I first got married, we were visiting different churches, etc. We wanted to give some portion of our income regularly to the church and to charities, but still have some flexibility to give for special requests and what have you. The problem was, our "flex money" didn't get spent every month, but we didn't want to have to go out in search of a place to give it.

Now we have a separate account and our tithe is set aside in that account. This makes it easier for us to be generous as requested as well as writing our weekly checksw at church.

Julia said...

One thing that tithing does that makes a lot of people uncomfortable is it brings you into a manna mentality. Most of us would prefer a bulk shipment of what we need(which we could storehouse and manage on our own) over having to rely on God day-by-day for sustenance. But there's a lot to be said for doing it God's way ;)

Anonymous said...

We have also used a separate account for our tithing. We were actually able to set it up as one of the automatic deposits from my husband's pay check so that money just goes to the "Charity" account before we ever have it. This system has really helped us to think of the money as God's instead of ours and has made the process of deciding how to apportion it (we give the bulk to our church but a portion to other charities) a real joy.

I have worried at times that by having the money go automatically to the account, we were making it too easy and not forcing ourselves to really feel what we were giving up, but I think that you're right, Red: there is a great temptation to short-change our giving when financial pressures arise. For us, this system has allowed us to keep that temptation at bay and make our giving consistent and joyful.

One more thing: My husband had the wisdom to propose this system for us right after he finished graduate school and before he started his first real job. As our income has increased, we have just increased the giving deposit accordingly.

I think it would be wonderful if all young couples were counseled to start tithing early or immediately in their marriages. For that matter, all young people, single or married, would do well to start this practice with their first jobs. We did not do that. Our giving before we married and during two years of graduate school was a tiny fraction of 10% of our income. It seems to me like it's much easier to give if it feels "normal" to you.

Red, thanks for bringing up this topic. It's nice to see how other people approach tithing.

Mary Alice said...

There was a post about this on Faith and Family recently, by Phil Lenahan, who has written a helpful book on finances for Catholic families. I wish that his program were part of the pre-cana experience, because, as you said, it is difficult to reset your budget once you already have debt, to make room for tithing and for the needs of a growing family, the sorts of things that young couples might not anticipate when they have two incomes and no kids at the beginning of marriage.

Kristen Laurence said...

Excellent post, Red.

Mary Alice said...

I also want to add that if you have made a bunch of long term budget decisions, like a car loan or mortgage, which put a 10% tithe out of reach, don't just throw up your hands. It is still really helpful to make a decision about your charitable giving, rather than just giving whatever feels right any given week. Your might start out with a smaller percentage of your monthly income, and make a goal of increasing over time, say one or two percentage points per year. This would still build the trusting habit of paying your tithe first, and you will be able to work up to 10% in just a few years.

JMB said...

I always assumed that tithing in a strict sense (10% of income) was a Protestant thing. I even looked in the Catechism and couldn't find anything specific about tithing. Maybe I didn't look in the right place. Our parish has always maintained a stewardship program of time, talent and treasure. As many of us who live in high tax states (NJ), more than half of our income goes to state, local and federal taxes. To add insult to injury, with a large family (additional deductions) we usually end up incurring the AMT. After all that is said and done, we don't have much disposable income after paying our bills. So we volunteer by teaching CCD and support our parish by attending functions when we can, and make sure that we do give each week.

Mary Alice said...

JMB, I think that while a 10% tithe is not a precept of the church to be strictly followed, it is the traditional measure of generosity. I was actually going to do a post later this week on tithing our time and talents as well, I'm glad that you bring that up.

I think that each family must do a thorough examination of conscience on this issue and do what they can, and a helpful and holy priest can also be a good adviser.

There can also be a wide margin for what "counts" as tithe -- I include the fees that I pay for religious education, the cost of an annual retreat, others include the cost of meals they prepare for pregnant friends, etc. I think that the details are really matters of personal conscience.

Phil Lenahan also includes the cost of Catholic education in his advising on tithe calculation, and there can be room for decision there for homeschooling families -- my school costs are less that a parochial school but they are not nothing, and I am providing my children with a faith filled education, so school book costs are included in our tithe calculation, but that is not strictly "charitable giving".

I have recently decided to give away more of our hand-me down clothes, rather than saving them for a baby who may or may not come. I am doing this because it feels wrong to have a closet full of clothes when others are without, and I am trusting in God to provide for the clothing needs of any future children, either by our own income or by the random influx of hand-me-downs we sometimes receive from friends. There is no financial way to include this in my tithe, but it is a related form of generosity, material detachment and trust in Providence.

Anonymous said...

The troubling thing about the initial story is that one might conclude that the outcome "proves" the couple was right to continue their strict tithing practice while paying interest on debt. Maybe, maybe not.

The Bible speaks against "usury" as much as it speaks of tithing. One couple may think, and rightly so, it is better for them to maintain an ironclad commitment to not using credit, while another couple may say their ironclad tithe commitment is most important. One does not necessarily have "more faith" than the other. Both can be honoring God.

Anonymous said...

JMB, The reason you don't find anything in the Catechism about tithing, I think, is because we are not bound to Old Testament laws. And when we try to revert to the OT ways, we easily find ourselves trapped in legalism.

The New Testament view of money is not that "10% belongs to God" but "100% is God's". A tithing practice should be nothing more than a helpful guide to generosity, never something that allows us to think "this is God's, the rest is mine". If I am giving a strict pre-tax tithe, but wasting money on superfluities, am I honoring God more than the one who gives 5% of their post-tax income but does not spend money on what is not needed?

Tithing discussions are very difficult because they so easily lead to a legalistic mindset. We are free in Christ to serve God as He leads us through a well-formed conscience. Freedom is harder work than slavery. I am not "off the hook" with my finances if I give a strict tithe. Jesus' words to the rich young man went way beyond asking for a tithe, he told him to sell ALL he had. I wonder if that sad young man might have gone away happy if Jesus had merely said, "Go give you you tithe at the temple and come follow me."

Anonymous said...

oops . . . I wish there were an editing link here.

That last statement should have read, "Go give your tithe at the temple and come follow me."

JMB said...

I appreciate your responses to my question. There's no doubt in my mind that we are obligated as Catholic Christians to help out those less fortunate to us and to support our parish. Those we do cheerfully! In a few weeks we will have to make our decision to support our Archdiocese's Annual Appeal and my husband and I will prayerfully consider what to give.

JesusThroughMary said...

It is worth mentioning (and if it already has been mentioned, forgive me for lack of attention span - this thread gives much food for thought) that contributing to the support of the Church is not a matter of charity, but of justice - it is a precept of the Church just as is the obligation to attend Mass on the appointed days. Giving beyond your tithe or to other organizations may be charity, but supporting your parish according to your means is a moral duty.

texas mommy said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Red. We were in the habit of always playing catch-up with our tithing, then having to separate out what was catch up and what was for that year, etc. It was getting confusing. But we put it all down on paper for this year, which is so much easier.

I have all our donations, and many of our bills set up on auto-pay. I think I may have to stop this, because our children don't see us put an envelope in the basket each week, even if they do put in their money (Ahem, if they are still inside at the time of the collection---rare). They should probably see our family put envelopes in the basket even if it means me taking 30 extra seconds to write two checks.

Jennifer Frey said...

I am not surprised to learn that Catholics don't give very much, unfortunately. I think the reason is that many Catholics don't feel particularly connected to their parish community anymore, whereas evangelicals feel very connected and remain heavily involved in their churches. I think if more Catholics were involved in their parish communities, tithing would make more sense to them.

But also, I have never personally heard a priest talk about the importance of tithing, in any context. I just wonder if it is on many people's radars, especially in this economy when so many people are without jobs.

I agree with you that tithing is a good practice to be encouraged. However, I do think it is OK if people who are really struggling give less. I don't think God is keeping track of the accounting quite so strictly, and for some families, it really would be irresponsible to give 10% if the household is financially insecure, for whatever reason. This isn't about trusting God to provide (he will); it's about being responsible and doing the right thing. I would think it would be acceptable to give more later if you have to go through some especially lean years.

JMB said...

Our former pastor used to tell us parents of the parish school that it didn't count if we were paying tuition, he would check our envelopes and if we did not give to the parish, he would charge us the non-parishoner rate for the school! You better believe everybody made sure to give each week.

Someone explained to me once that the reason why Protestants tithe is because they usually have to support a pastor and his family. The paster would need a home, a car (or two!) and if he had a wife & children, health insurance, tuition for school, etc. etc. Catholic parishes aren't set up like that, and a few priests are a lot less expensive than a family. Tithing is a real issue for Protestants because of this.

JesusThroughMary said...


Most Protestant churches don't have to take 10-30% off the top to prop up an untenable parish school system, nor do they have to keep the electric and heat all week for daily Mass. Tithing is no less a "real issue" for Catholics than for Protestants.

Protestants give because they take the Bible seriously; Catholics don't because they don't.

Anonymous said...

"I would think it would be acceptable to give more later if you have to go through some especially lean years."

I agree with you and I think our parish is a good example. We have many "well-off" parishoners who are in their "later years". They are extremely generous monetarily and our parish has no debt (not even for a million dollar addition put on a few years ago). Our parish also gives generously to many charities.

But there are also many families in our parish who, like us, have many children at home and cannot give much money to the parish at this time. Our support of the parish at this point in our family's life is primarily, though not exclusively, through volunteering of time (and paying for gas to make the 50-mile round trip to church every time we go) in ways our elderly members cannot.

A couple of weeks ago we had the reading comparing the Church to a body--we are each called on to do the best we can with what we have for the welfare of the Body of Christ and, of course, without judgment of anyone around us.

Just as we are called on to ask God every month if He wants us to enlarge our families, we're called on to ask Him where we can and need to be more generous financially. But it's an offering, not a payment which is why I believe schools should charge a straight tuition, rather than looking for it through the offering plate. If a family cannot afford the tuition, they should be able to apply for scholarships but the offering plate should remain just that--an offering.