Question about Tithing

Question about Tithing June 8, 2016

A reader writes:

I have a question about tithing.  I’ve read folks who say to give at least 10%, and I’ve read others who say “give what you can, it’s understandable if you can’t make the 10% mark”, and I’ve read some positions in between along the lines of “tithing was made for man, not man for tithing”, etc.

Regardless, we are struggling to give 10% because of (A) student loan payments, (B) saving up for a down payment on a house, (C) rent, (D) car payments, and (E) taxes.  Do payments for the above-listed necessities (or at least “non-negotiables” (too soon? 😀 )) change the 10% minimum at all?  Also, do taxes change the minimum at all?  Are we to give 10% of our gross income, or 10% of our net income?  I understand Catholic teaching to be that the State has a role in helping the poor, so are we to calculate a percentage of our 10% tithe as having been satisfied by our taxes that are withheld each paycheck?

I’m not trying to dodge our duty to the poor or the Church or anything, but I saw a line in our parish bulletin a couple years ago that said “90% for me, 10% for God” and thought “that’s a pretty simplistic phrase – why do parish priests continue to misunderstand what their parishioners go through to make ends meet?  Do I need a dispensation from our parish priest on this tithing thing?”  I’m just unsure of how to swing it financially in light of other payments we have to make up front and can’t hold off on (that’s what I mean by “non-negotiable” – those creditors and their attorneys are kinda hard-nosed sometimes).  I promise I’m not mad about taxes or anything either.  I get that they are necessary, and I don’t have beef with it.  I’m just uncertain.  Or maybe I lack some faith.

I think the first thing to remember is that tithing is not treated like a law in the Catholic tradition.  So there is no iron rule nor even any precept of the Church on the matter.  The whole matter is treated as a sort of mild request in the Catechism *after* the five precepts of the Church are given (“The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.”)

That’s because the Faith, beginning with Jesus, has an amazing casual relationship with provision of material good.  “Do not worry about your life… etc.”  The assumption is that God, having commanded the Church to fulfill her mission, will just have to pony up to make it happen and the money necessary will come.  This, combined with the fact that the Church knows the flock is not made of money (“Blessed are the poor”) has always tended to say “Do what you can, but don’t sweat it.”)

The idea behind tithing *is* very much “The law (including law of economics) was made for man, not man for the law.”  So the purpose of tithing is to bless us and to make us participants in his generosity, not ride us and hector us coughing up the month quota of dough.  So the whole 10% thing is emphatically guideline–a suggestion–not a law.  The rule of thumb–and that is *all* it is–is 5% to the Church and five percent to Whoever.  But how you work that out is up to you.  If it is hurting you overmuch and, most especially, if it is harming your ability to meet debts, then don’t worry about it: pay your bills and do the sensible things you need to do to feed your family and meet basic obligations.  There are other ways you can tithe besides with money.   Some people help out with the soup kitchen.  Others volunteer their time or talents for free.  So a teacher who could be earning 40K a year with his or her degree who instead offers a Bible study at the parish for free  is offering a kind of tithe too.

The idea is to remind us that everything we have and are is a gift and so to give that gift back to God by “paying it forward” to somebody else and to thank God by offering a piece of our labor back to Him along with the bread and wine–with expectation that he will bless and sanctify it and the rest of our lives as he does the Eucharist.  It’s not a divine protection racket demanding a cut for favors rendered.  It’s a free exchange given in love.

That said, tithing *should* pinch a little, I think.  Not to hurt us, but to challenge us to trust God to provide.  FWIW, I have never found generosity to the poor to harm me.  Oddly, there’s always 12 baskets left over.  We’re not rich. But we’ve always had enough.

Bottom line: don’t treat it as a law or a formula.  Using prudence and common sense, settle in your mind what you need to do to meet your debts, then set aside a portion that you can spare and maybe a smidge more.  Or if you can’t spare anything, see if there is some other way you can tithe (for example, in time spent on intercessory prayers since “time is money.”)  The idea is to give back in love to a God who generously gives to you, not to be hagridden by a judgmental law that is always demanding back rent.  It’s an exchange of love, not the approaching footstep of Inspector Javert. 🙂

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