How do various Christian groups differ from each other regarding the amount of money donated to their respective churches? Every major study in 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 of a highly pragmatic nature with lots of number-crunching, 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? Is there a strong tradition of tithing in Catholic history? 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. Whatever 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 charitable of giving. Despite the differences, all generally refer to the offerings given for the support of the minister and the infrastructure of the church as “tithing.”
Catholic tradition is much more particular and identifies several forms of giving: tithing, almsgiving, and offerings are all distinct. This calls for a short diversion into Catholic history.
History of the Tithe
In the Old Testament, a tithe referred to a tenth of the annual increase in crops or flocks that was exacted in support of the priesthood at Jerusalem. The tithe was both like and unlike a tax. It was like a tax in the sense that it was compulsory—an exaction, not a free-will offering. However, unlike a tax, it was only exacted from natural goods that had an increase. Fields and flocks yield increase, so the tithes were paid out of them. Uncultivated property, on the other hand, yields no increase, so no tithe was paid on the value of property. Unlike, say, an inheritance tax or other kinds of taxes, no tithe would be taken on the transfer of land or its inheritance. The only items subject to the tithe were those which yielded an increase.
This was in contrast to free will offerings, which were gratuitous gifts given in thanksgiving for a particular blessing conferred by God. Alms, the third form of giving, was assistance specifically given to the poor.
This three-fold division of giving would persist into the New Testament age. At the time the Church was founded, its ministers were supported by free-will offerings of the congregation. Our Lord taught that the laborer is worthy of his wage (Luke 10:7) and St. Paul teaches that: “Know you not that they who work in the holy place, eat the things that are of the place; and that they that serve the altar, partake with the altar? So also the Lord ordained that they who preach the Gospel, should live by the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13-14).
In the patristic period, monetary or in-kind free-will offerings appear to have been the primary way the Church was maintained, although donations of land were not uncommon (such as those set aside for the catacombs in Rome). However, once the Church became the official religion of the empire, free-will offerings will no longer sufficient to maintain the massive buildings and explosion of clerical vocations that came in the 4th-5th centuries. Thus the Church reinstated the Old Testament tithe as an exaction of the tenth part of the increase arising from the profits of land and stock, allotted to the clergy for their support or devoted to religious or charitable uses. As in the Old Testament, the tithe was only on natural assets that yielded an increase. The tithe seems to have been a general obligation in the late 5th century; we see it taught as an obligation of divine law in local synods from 585 onward. Beginning with the capitularies of Charlemagne (r. 768-814), we see civil law enforcing the payment of the tithe. This would be the norm throughout Christendom from the Middle Ages into the modern age. It thus functioned as a “church tax.”
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” seem to be ignorant of this matter.
Of course, the tithe as practiced historically was not a voluntary contribution of ten percent. 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.”
Interestingly enough, the legislators of the late-medieval period who instituted the civilly-enforced tithe did so with the desire to spare congregations from constant demands on their flocks for their pastors’ livelihood or the upkeep of the Church, which was both onerous to the laity who had to endure them as well as beneath the dignity of the sacred ministers to engage is such pleading. Only parishioners sufficiently capable of making free-will offerings were solicited, and this was done in private, usually in an in-home visitation by the priest.
Historically, the Church preferred instead to rely on permanent endowments or perpetual foundations, which brought the additional benefit of freeing the upkeep of the Church from reliance on the temporary generosity of any one group. This brought greater stability to the local churches over many generations. By the high Middle Ages, almost every piece of property had certain stipulations laid upon it, requiring that a certain amount of its income be set apart for the support of the local clergy. This also forced the noble landowners to provide for the spiritual care of their tenants by subsidizing their pastors.
Thus the medieval tithe was an exaction of ten percent of the increase in flocks or lands set aside for the temporal needs of the Church and enforced by civil law. This brought long-term stability and freed the parish from having to be constantly solicited for funds, admittedly one of the most unpleasant aspects of the modern Church-going experience. Therefore it is not correct to say the Church “has never practiced tithing”. This article on tithing and another on church maintenance from the Catholic Encyclopedia provide more excellent background on the history of this question.
The important point is this: While free-will offerings of 1.2% or 1.5% is admittedly low, it is not fair to measure these numbers against 10%, because the Catholic tradition has never insisted that free-will offerings must be given at 10%. This is because the free-will offering and the tithe are fundamentally different forms of giving.
How Much Should Be Given?
All interesting history, but none of this gets to the heart of the matter—how much ought we to give? While a tithe has always been set at 10%, the Church has never dictated what an appropriate free-will offering is. This is an important question to explore, as with the elimination of civilly-enforced tithing throughout most of Christendom, free-will offerings are the mainstay of parish life. Of course, per Scripture and Tradition, the faithful are bound to support their pastors ; and per canon law and legislation since time immemorial, pastors are obliged to live without ostentation or needless luxury. But within the two obligations of the faithful to give and the pastors not to waste, what is fitting?
There has never been a hard and fast rule here, and perhaps Catholics get too caught up on identifying the correct “number” rather than on the correct concept. Scriptural principles teach us that whatever one gives is pleasing to God, with the important caveat that it ought to be given out of our substance, not out of our excess. That is to say, we do not give God what is “left over.” This is the principle behind the episode of the widow’s mite (Luke 24:1-4), for the Pharisees gave out of their excess, the widow out of her substance. The levels of giving were different for the two; but clearly God was more pleased with the widow’s giving, both because of the disposition of humble faith with which she gave it, and because it represented a more generous offering in the qualitative sense, “For all these have of their abundance cast into the offerings of God: but she of her want, hath cast in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:4).
What does it mean to “give out of our substance”? This has always denoted that our giving should “hurt” a little bit. We have a duty to provide for our families, and God does not call us to give to such a degree that we impoverish our own households by doing so. But to give out of our substance rather than our excess means that our giving should challenge us.
The reason for this is not simply because our pastors want to fleece us for as much as possible. It is an opportunity for spiritual growth. While giving is associated with thanksgiving and the need to support God’s Church, Catholic tradition also associates it with penance—the traditional Lenten penances are fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Although almsgiving is different from free-will offering, both forms of giving can be penitential in the sense that they give us an opportunity to practice mortification. Mortification means putting to death our worldly attachments. Since “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), our giving patterns offer us a continued opportunity to divest ourselves of our attachments to mammon. This is a good reason why our giving, while remaining within levels dictated by prudence, should “hurt” a little bit. If it doesn’t, we fail in an attempt to detach ourselves from mammon. This is why Jesus says “it is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).
Does God Reward Generous Giving?
This is an important question, one which has unfortunately become the linchpin of a whole sect of Protestant thought loosely called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth” Christianity. Does God reward Christians who are generous with their giving? The Prosperity Gospel proposes a three-fold answer:
(a) Yes, God rewards Christians for giving generously;
(b) The manner of the reward is temporal, material prosperity, and;
(c) This temporal remuneration must be steadfastly believed in with a powerful act of faith in order to actualize it.
Each of these points must be examined:
Yes, it is true that God will reward generous giving. This is clearly established from the Old Testament Book of Malachi, in which God challenges us, even dares, to open up our hearts to give and see what happens:
Shall a man afflict God? for you afflict me. And you have said: Wherein do we afflict thee? in tithes and in firstfruits. And you are cursed with want, and you afflict me, even the whole nation of you. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in my house, and try me in this, saith the Lord: if I open not unto you the flood-gates of heaven, and pour you out a blessing even to abundance. (Mal. 3:8-10)
This is a remarkable passage; in general, God tells us not to test Him, but here He calls us forth boldly and asks us to try Him and see whether He does not pour out blessings like a flood from heaven in return for our generosity. The passage and the principle are so well attested in tradition that its use by Prosperity preachers should not frighten us off. God will bless us if we put ourselves and our talents to work for Him (cf. Matt, 25:14-30).
We must interpret it correctly, however, and while Scripture and history both demonstrate that God may reward temporal giving with temporal blessing, this can by no means be assumed or depended upon.
Of course, the true reward for munificence are spiritual riches, as we see in the Book of Acts and the Epistles, where temporal wealth is consistently put at the Church’s disposal with no return save knowledge that God “hath blessed us with every spiritual blessings in heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). St. Paul also teaches this in the Epistle to the Corinthians: “He who sows sparingly, shall also reap sparingly: and he who sows in blessings, shall also reap blessings” (2 Cor. 9:6). Notice the proportionality of the gift to the blessing.
Temporal wealth is not an evil in the New Testament; it is still a good, but its goodness is subordinated to spiritual goods, which are far superior, and towards which the use of temporal wealth ought to be directed. Temporal wealth, like any other temporal thing, must be moderated according to the virtue of temperance and always put at the disposal of charity. Like any other temporal good, we always run the risk of coveting its possession, which becomes a great evil. Nevertheless, because the Church has such a long historical tradition of seeking out and depending upon perpetual foundations for the support of churches, monasteries and clergy, the Church has historically viewed the right use of wealth as a source of blessing that is pleasing to God.
Thus, all temporal gifts are to be seen as blessings from God, but we must resist the temptation to think that all blessings consist in such temporal gifts. The greatest gifts are those that come in the order of grace. And, if we want to be perfect, our Lord counsels us to abandon wealth altogether as the ultimate sign of renunciation for the kingdom (cf. Matt. 19:16-26).
If we know that not all blessings are temporal, it follows that it is an abuse for pastors to teach their congregations that temporal blessings should be confidently expected in return for big enough donations, much less to make this a matter of faith.
Charles Zech’s book identified a malformed or nonexistent concept of ‘stewardship’ as responsible for the giving habits of Catholics. How can stewardship be cultivated?
For one thing, pastors themselves need solid formation in the Church’s approach and traditions surrounding charitable giving. Many pastors simply do not know how to ask for money. Some of them are overbearing about it; I knew a priest once who would occasionally begin a homily with, “Now, I don’t like to talk about money…”, followed by the most severe haranguing for funds one could imagine. Every time the parishioners heard this line they knew they were going to get fleeced. Other pastors, perhaps put off by the excessive appeals of the televangelists, never ask for money, and consequently receive much less than they could if a clear and consistent message on the this subject were given.
To that end, it does not seem out of place that a homily ought to occasionally be given on this subject. The readings provide ample opportunity. The widow’s mite, the parable of the talents, the reading from Malachi 3 above, even the Lord’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17, in which God promises great blessing in exchange for faith, all of these could serve as occasions for a solid catechesis on giving.
Since lay people have an obligation to support the Church, they ought to frequently reflect on their possessions as lent to them by the Lord, the use of which He will inquire into at the judgment. The parable of the talents from Matthew 25 should always be in their mind. On the day the Lord calls us, we do not want to be guilty of hoarding our Lord’s treasure and refusing to put it to work for Him. We do not want to be like the fool in Luke 12 who laid up wealth for himself by was struck dead in the midst of his covetousness.
On another point, giving is often higher in parishes where people experience a greater spiritual nourishment; i.e., where they feel they are getting a greater “return” for their time invested in the parish. This is not unconnected with the liturgy. Our parish liturgies used to be banal and pandering orgies of self-glorification. During those years, parish finances were dismal and the parish ledger was awash in red ink; in fact, the parish was on the chop block to be closed or clustered. But when our pastor arrived and began doing a reverent liturgy— and eventually the Traditional Mass—it drew a different sort of crowd who knew that God is important and were willing to say so with their wallets. Giving went up. Not only was the parish debt eliminated, but the parish has operated solidly in the black ever since with money to spare for tuck-pointing the historic structure, renovations to the parish center, etc. Because the pastor put God first, the people followed suit and gave generously and the parish has lacked for nothing.
Some Alternative Examples
Free-will offerings are truly free will. There are many ways to give, and in my many years as a Catholic I have run across many diverse means of giving.
Though it was not required, when I was married, my wife and I committed that we would give ten percent of our pre-tax income to the Church. We did this for some time, but eventually I was laid off, took a lesser paying job, kids were born, and the exigencies of life made 10% not feasible. I recall Dr. Scott Hahn mentioning once that he and his wife had made a similar commitment early in their marriage. Ten percent is not required, but it is an admirable goal, perhaps more suited to couples with no kids and lesser expenses. This should be something couples discuss before marriage and come to consensus on.
Another friend of mine used to calculate ten percent of his income and put that money “on hold” for any charitable purpose that would arise. Say, for example, 10% of his monthly income was $250. He and his wife would simply reserve that $250, set aside for any worthy cause or person they might encounter. Perhaps a friend in need of some help, or a donation to a restoration fund, or sponsoring a child. If the month went by and they had not expended the amount, the remainder was simply given to the parish at that time. Thus, each month a certain amount was usually given to the Church and another amount distributed among different people and causes.
Some people, of course, will simply sign up for auto-withdrawal and have a certain amount deducted every month from their bank. This allows you to give with greater regularity, but I think it loses some of the spiritual merit because you don’t really realize you are giving. It kind of automates something that is meant to be personal. It is a much greater act of giving to physically take a $20 bill out of your wallet and put it in the basket than to just have it electronically withdrawn from your bank account and not have to think about it. Not saying withdrawals are incompatible with a generous spirit, but I do think they are objectively an inferior form of giving, but this is opinion and I grant it may be wrong.
Others set their giving levels at different rates, or, as in my case, set no rate at all. Due to the nature of my work some months I am flush with cash and other months have very little. We give what we can when we can, but we try to make it decent—for the reasons enumerated above, and also to set a good example to our children, whom we also want to grow up with generous spirits.
Another good way to support the Church is by donating to worthy Catholic publications, organizations and, websites. This website’s hosting fees and maintenance, for example, are paid for entirely by the generosity of Catholic donors.
It should also be noted that as tithing, alms and free will donations were traditionally separate, one does not fulfill one’s obligations to support the Church by giving alms and vice versa. Or in other words, if you have given to the poor you are still expected to also give to the Church, while giving to the Church alone does not satisfy the mandate for giving alms to the poor.
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Phillip Campbell, “Catholics and Tithing,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, November 23, 2014. Available online at https://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/11/catholics-and-tithing