Lent is often called the “tithe of the year,” being approximately one tenth of the year which Catholics give to God. During these forty days, believers are challenged to renew their spiritual devotions and duties—and one of those devotional duties is supporting the Church. The question of tithing in this respect is especially challenging, and not simply because tithing is challenging. As far as many Catholics are concerned, the jury is still somewhat out on tithing—which, for some, is something of an unspoken convenience given the state of the American economy and the state of the average Catholic-family budget. So, why address the elephant in the church?
Some Catholics profess—and some dioceses, too—that tithing is a strict duty. Others hold that tithing was a juridical precept of Old Testament Law and no longer applies to the New Law of charity. The middle ground is comprised of a confused, conscientious multitude, which abides by their conscience despite their confusion in supporting the Church, but without a solid understanding of how solid their position is.
Shall these tear a page from Pilate’s playbook asking, “What is truth?” before washing their hands of tithing?
What Says the Church?
Catholics are obliged, according to ability, to offer material support for the Church (cf. Code of Canon Law, 222); but a fixed percentage is not dictated. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions the “obligation to tithe” only once (cf. CCC, 2449) as a paradigm of the Old Law. Therefore, tithing is no longer binding. Like so many Old Law dictums, however, Catholics should honor sacred tradition as a point of reference in pursuing the incarnation of charity in their lives.
In this respect, though tithing can be dismissed as something Christ fundamentally altered in His “You have heard it said of old… but I say” teachings, this does not eliminate the attitude of tithing from the fulfilled context of the Law. Tithing becomes a standard to aim for; a guideline that Catholics should examine regarding the duty to make just return unto God. Mammonism often undermines this goal with mental placebos and excuses. Just as NFP cannot serve as Catholic birth control, neither can financial anxiety (largely inspired by modern standards of materialism) serve as a reason for Catholics not to give to the Church according to their means.
Letter vs. Spirit
Christ changed the face of religion; but the way He laid out for His followers is actually greater than any Old Law tithing decree. Christians are called to go further—to give of their time, talent, and treasure. This directive should be undertaken with the precedent of the time-honored tithe in mind—though the idea of the tithe can be hazardous. The principle of giving to the Church should proceed from the heart and not from a legalistic sense of obligation. The bylaw of 10% becomes a benchmark. Good standing with God and His Church does not depend upon equations. Marketplace-mentality is destructive when it comes to the spiritual life because Christ demands far more than just a well-balanced checkbook.
Whose is this image and inscription? They say to him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering, said to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mark 12:16-17)
The Pharisees marveled at Our Lord’s response because His words displayed an unexpected knowledge of Scripture, alluding to man being made in God’s Image. He thereby provided an unexpected response to their snare. As the coin bears the image of Caesar, so to Caesar should it go; as man bears the Image of God, so to God should he go. The act of rendering oneself to God, however, does not exclude the rendering of material possessions. The tradition of tithing should enlighten this new attitude of love through prudence, but not jurisprudence. “Let every one of you put apart with himself, laying up what it shall well please him” (1 Corinthians 16:2) (cf. CCC, 1351).
This attitude of giving, though informed by the attitude of tithing, is according to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Any mindset that quantifies divine grace is misleading because salvation is not a transaction. It is a gift. The story of Christ driving out the merchants and moneychangers from the temple (cf. John 2:13-16) is not so much about wrath as it is about love. Forgiveness is not contingent upon how many doves are sacrificed. A man is no closer to paradise if he pays to have an ox offered instead of a ram. Divine favor does not hinge upon passing the plate. If the businessmen in the Gospel were advertising redemption for a price, as if spiritual communion was a matter of legalism, no wonder they were set upon with whip and warning.
Tithing can easily fall into this chimeric category of perfunctory pseudo-spirituality. 10% is not a failsafe figure or guaranteed investment. Being Catholic is simply not that simple. Fulfilling the duty to give to the Church requires self-examination, self-knowledge, ingenuity, generosity, and, above all, sacrifice—but not to the point of destitution. The best gifts are those given with some tears and with sound judgment (cf. CCC, 2046).
Liberty and Justice for All
For many, a strict tithing of gross income (or net income) could compromise, or even prevent, the basic essentials for living. Given that casual decisions against tithing are injudicious, the challenge is determining whether anything like 10% of one’s income may be labeled surplus. This is an important distinction because of what the Church has ever taught concerning almsgiving: all excess resources are to be given to the poor (cf. CCC, 2446; 2447). Almsgiving is not only an act of charity and mercy, but also of justice—and that, tithing aside, is a high standard indeed. Therefore, the practice of tithing would seem to be over and above those surpluses that belong to the poor. Such solidarity with the poor is an important aspect of Christian duty (cf. Bl. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 40), and may be the Christian duty concerning the obligation to support the Church—support given through her members. Whether by strict tithing or by strict dedication to Christian communion, Catholics have options.
The ambition of tithing is further complicated by the fact that what Americans perceive as income is not entirely theirs to spend—whereas the tithe was historically a tenth of undisputed income. Nowadays, before any income is in-pocket, Federal and State tax, Social Security, Medicare, and mandatory insurance withholdings take their toll—which deductions can easily render gross tithing fiscally unfeasible or even unethical for many families. For Catholics who feel compelled to observe the ancient 10%, it may be necessary to tithe from some determined sum that is both financially practical and compatible with a concept of “income” that predates the modern post-industrial tax-state. Christ, however, has provided a yoke that is easy and a burden that is sweet, giving His friends the liberty to find their role in His economy.
For those without particularly deep pockets, these are certainly deep waters. But Lent is for tough questions and tough decisions. The basic and blunt principle regarding the considerations surrounding the question of tithing—or simply giving to the Church—is that it should hurt. The sense of sacrifice must be present and real. For, to be true members of that Mystical Body that suffered and gave for us, we too must truly suffer and truly give. By some mystery and mercy of grace, however, it is the general consensus that when people begin to give to the Church beyond their comfort zone, they begin to prosper. Perhaps it is not so mysterious, after all. When the faithful follow Our Lord into the desert and reject temptation, angels minister to them as well.