Tithing: Don’t pass the buck

The call to generosity is a key part of how we are called to live out our faith. Generosity comes in many forms, but primarily through the use of our time, talent and treasure. When it comes to generosity through sharing our treasure, questions on tithing frequently arise. The purpose of this column is to address the most commonly asked questions on tithing that I receive:

Question: Does the Church require that we give 10 percent?

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Answer: The universal Church does not specify a particular amount, while some local dioceses do. The original tithe (a 10th) was part of Mosaic Law, and as such, is now subject to the current governance of the Church. In the Summa Theologica (Q. 87), Thomas Aquinas noted that the Church can change the amount the faithful are to give based upon circumstances.

The pertinent instruction for the universal Church comes from Code of Canon Law 222, which says, “The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity and for the decent sustenance of ministers. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.”

While Canon 222 specifies an obligation to give, it does not provide a specific amount. While the Church has not defined a universal amount to be given, it is not uncommon for local dioceses to recommend specific percentages for giving to the diocese, local parishes, and other charities. Check with your parish regarding such guidelines.

Just because the amount you give is voluntary doesn’t mean that the concept of the tithe, or 10 percent, isn’t important. Aquinas noted that the tithe flows from natural law, with 10 being one of the perfect numbers. Ten percent continues to be an excellent guideline for the faithful.

It’s important that our giving be both from the heart and substantial as a reminder that God reigns first in our lives. With the average American Catholic giving a bit more than 1 percent to charity, the tithe is an effective antidote to our consumer culture.

Question: Should giving be based on income before (gross) or after (net) taxes?

Answer: Proverbs 3:9 says, “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce.” This reference lends credibility that our giving be based on gross income, or income before taxes. Thomas Aquinas concluded as much in the Summa. With that said, it would be possible for a government to tax its citizens at a rate that would make it virtually impossible to tithe on gross income and still meet one’s personal obligations.

Question: Can I use part of my tithe to pay for Catholic school tuition?

Answer: Church teaching isn’t clear on this and there are varied opinions. My own opinion is mixed. On the one hand, it seems clear that Catholic education fits within what Code of Canon Law 222 describes as “apostolic works.” That’s an argument for allowing tuition payments as part of the tithe. On the other hand, giving should be outward focused, and tuition for family members does provide a level of self-benefit. However, it also provides support for institutions of Catholic learning.

Because the objective of Catholic education is of such importance, and the financial burden so high, I believe it is reasonable to include Catholic tuition as part of the tithe when necessity dictates. If resources are adequate to provide for Catholic education in addition to a full tithe, that would be the preferred approach. Finally, in the event of very limited resources, it may be that tuition costs will absorb the full tithe. In this case, I recommend that at least some portion of the tithe be reserved for divine worship and assisting with the needs of the poor. God love you.

Phil Lenahan is President of Veritas Financial Ministries (www.VeritasFinancialMinistries.com) and author of 7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A Catholic Small Group Study (OSV) and Generation Next: A Catholic Guide to Financial Freedom for Young Adults.