August 5, 2020

Catholics and Tithing (Part 1 of 3)

Every major study of recent years that I am aware of has verified that Catholics are the most penurious of all
Christian groups; typically we are ranked at or close to dead last in giving. What does dead last look like? In most
studies it is about 1.25% to 1.5% of gross income (for comparison, the highest was around 6.1% for the Reformed Church in America. Mainline liberal Protestant churches hovered around 2.5 to 3%). The “penurious Catholic” trend was even the subject of a book authored by Charles Zech and printed by Our Sunday Visitor back in 2000 called Why Catholics Don’t Give…And What Can Be Done About It. Though Zech’s book is highly pragmatic with lots of numbercrunching, he ultimately identifies the problem on the lack of stewardship mentality among Catholics, where stewardship is defined as a return of money, time, and talents to God as an expression of our thankfulness for his blessings. While most people agree that 1.2% is not an ideal, the data raises valuable questions about the giving of Catholics. If 1.2% is low, what are we measuring this by? By the biblical 10%, known as the “tithe”? Does the Catholic Church teach tithing, or is there a strong tradition of tithing? If not, what is a proper Catholic approach to giving? How can we cultivate a disposition of stewardship?

Defining our Terms

Part of the problem here – at least in the United States – comes from allowing the larger Protestant culture to define our terms for us, which inevitably happens by osmosis. For a Protestant, tithing is simply giving to the church. What is placed in the collection basket on Sunday is the “tithe.” In some Protestant sects, a “tithe” may also refer to money that is given to charitable causes, but other denominations distinguish giving to the church from other forms of giving. All generally refer to the offerings given for the support of the minister and the infrastructure of the church as “tithing”, though. Catholic tradition is much more particular and identifies several forms of giving: tithing, alms giving, and offerings are all distinct. This calls for a short diversion into Catholic history

Considerations

When questions about tithing are asked of modern pop-apologists, it is common to hear them respond that there is no strict tithe in the Catholic Church, noting that CCC 2041 on the obligation of the faithful to support the material needs of the Church does not state any requisite percentile: “‘You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church’ means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability’ (CCC 2041). However, from the above we can see that not only has the Catholic Church practiced tithing – an exaction of 10% for the upkeep of the Church – but that it has been normative for most of Catholic history. Apologists or others who state that the Church has “never practiced tithing” are woefully ignorant of history. It may seem questionable to the modern Catholic why the tithe as an exaction was every considered prudent by the Church; why not rely exclusively on free-will offerings, as is the case today in most parts of the world? This would make the giving more authentic and prevent the faithful from resenting the tithe as a “church tax.”