Our parish has an elected finance council that advises the pastor about money matters and puts out regular reports, which are included in the Sunday bulletin. With the pastor’s approval, the council is now setting up a parish tithing program, to go into effect the first of the year. The first step is for every family to sign a pledge to contribute ten percent of its take-home pay. The idea is that this would replace and supplement all other donations currently being made to the Church and various charities. Half the money paid as tithes will stay in the parish—paying off the debt, supporting the clergy, covering all the other usual parish expenses, subsidizing our grade school, and helping needy people in the parish. The other half will go outside the parish, partly as our contribution to the diocesan Catholic charities campaign and other special collections authorized by the bishop, and partly as donations by the parish to various charities and missionary activities selected by the parish finance council.
The literature the council has distributed in support of the tithing program offers three closely related arguments for signing up. First, it says the Council of Trent taught that “the payment of tithes is due to God” and cited several passages from Scripture to prove it, so that even though the Church’s law no longer explicitly requires tithing, it remains obligatory for those who can. Second, the literature quotes the Church’s current law (CIC, c. 222):
§1. 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.
The argument is that tithing best fulfills these obligations. The third argument is that most Catholics who do not tithe fail to donate as much as they should to the Church and to charity. People in Old Testament times and Catholics in times past, many quite poor by our standards, tithed. Many non-Catholics today tithe, and giving by Protestants on the average exceeds Catholic giving.
§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
Must we sign up for the tithing program?
This question concerns the obligation to contribute to the support of the Church and the needs of the poor. The Church’s law does not specify how much Catholics should contribute. Thus, though each family should contribute its fair share to the parish in which it participates and the diocese, and also should help the poor in other ways, these obligations must be specified by the family’s own conscientious judgments, taking all relevant considerations into account. Therefore, the questioner need not sign up for the tithing program.
Tithe in a narrow sense, in accord with the word’s etymology, meant a tax of ten percent, but it came to be used in a broader sense to refer to any legally required payment for the support of the Church. Tithes in Old Testament law—which applied only to the produce of farming and cattle breeding—were a tax on the people of ancient Israel.48 But, like many other elements of the old law that are not doctrinal or moral truths, the tithing laws were abrogated by Jesus’ new law, as St. Thomas points out (S.t., 2–2, q. 87, a. 1). The requirement of tithing was not reinstated by the early Church; but later, when laws were enacted requiring payments to support the Church, those payments were called “tithes.” Today, neither the law of the universal Church nor the particular law of the Church in the United States specifies how much is to be paid. The responsibility to support the Church thus must be fulfilled according to the conscientious judgment of the faithful, taking into account all their resources and their other genuine needs.49
The “tithing” program your parish finance council has adopted is an attempt to specify for members of your parish, as ten percent of take-home pay, their duty to support the Church and contribute to charity. Since parishioners cannot be compelled to participate, you are being asked to sign a pledge. You rightly ask about your moral responsibility in the matter.
The Council of Trent does say: “the payment of tithes is due to God.”50 But what did the Council mean by tithes? The answer is found in the conclusion Trent draws: “The holy council therefore orders all, of whatever rank and condition they may be, who are concerned with the payment of tithes, to pay henceforth those to which they are bound in law” (emphasis added); it then backs up this order with the penalty of excommunication. Plainly, Trent was legislating to enforce the Church taxes exacted by law at that time; the Council was not teaching that all the faithful ought to contribute ten percent of their take-home pay.
What about the Scripture passages Trent cites? Inasmuch as such legal requirements of the Old Testament are not binding on Christians, those passages do not show that Christians ought to contribute a specific amount, and the Council of Trent should not be interpreted as having made so unsound an argument. Rather, the Council should be understood as using those passages to show precisely what they can prove that is relevant to the decree’s purpose: God has made known to his People that they ought to pay the taxes required by just laws for Church support—something true not only in Old Testament times but forever.
The current law of the Church (CIC, c. 222), which the literature quotes, does point out and confirm real obligations, but does not specify how much each family must contribute.
You certainly ought to contribute to the parish in which you participate a fair share of its budget for the items listed in the first section of the canon you quote. The amount contributed should reflect not only the parish’s needs and the number of parishioners but your other responsibilities, other donations, and comparative wealth, since it is fair that wealthier parishioners, other things being equal, contribute considerably more than poorer ones, and those with few other responsibilities and few or no other channels of charitable giving, other things being equal, contribute more than others. People who accept a parish’s service but contribute nothing or significantly less than their fair share are guilty of grave injustice. Similarly, people should contribute enough to cover their fair share of their diocese’s needs.
Some people who fail or refuse to make fair contributions to their parish and/or diocese rationalize their injustice—for example, by alleging that the Church is a patriarchal institution that deserves no support until she reforms herself, or by pointing to various abuses in the Church, tolerated or committed by priests or even by bishops, as if these wrongs justified cheating fellow Catholics who suffer the same abuses.
You also should assist the poor, as the second section of the canon prescribes. However, the canon does not say you should do this by contributing to your diocese and the parish you participate in more than your fair share of their budgets, which also include something for the poor. You might fulfill this further responsibility to the poor by directly meeting the needs of people you know, contributing to various suitable Catholic organizations, and/or in other ways. Your identification of appropriate beneficiaries should take into account your own gifts and prior commitments (see q. 5, above). Insofar as the proposed tithing program would include collecting and disbursing all the funds that most parishioners will use “to assist the poor from their own resources,” the parish finance council seems to be trying to usurp parishioners’ responsibility to identify appropriate beneficiaries.
Given these clarifications, it is easy to see the unsoundness of the argument that participating in the proposed tithing program will best fulfill the responsibilities indicated by canon law. In the first place, in some cases people ought to use more than ten percent of their take-home pay to meet the canonically specified responsibilities, especially the responsibility to assist the poor. That is true not only of the very wealthy but even of many less affluent people, at stages in their lives when financial resources significantly exceed current and reasonably predictable needs. In the second place, in some cases the demand for ten percent of a family’s take-home pay is excessive. Less affluent individuals’ and families’ fair shares of the parish and diocesan budgets, other things being equal, plainly will not be the same proportion of take-home pay as those of more affluent individuals and families. Then too, the taxes levied by various governments already include a significant transfer of resources to the poor, and many people, at least at some stages in their lives, can afford little or no more. Consequently, the proposed tithing program, especially in being presented as obligatory for everyone, plainly is an imprudent, legalistic attempt to specify a moral responsibility wisely left to the faithful’s conscientious judgment by canon law.51
The third argument proposed in the literature distributed by the finance council also is unsound. The claim that most Catholics who do not tithe fail to give what they should may be correct, but I do not know how that could be proved. Certainly, giving by Protestants cannot be presumed to be the proper measure of Catholics’ duty.52 More important, even if the claim is granted, the fact that many people who do not tithe fail to fulfill their responsibilities to donate to the Church and assist the poor while most people who tithe do fulfill those responsibilities is not an argument for tithing. Many people who do not tithe probably also fulfill their responsibilities, a few by giving more than ten percent of their after-tax income, many by giving less. Moreover, some people who tithe very likely do not fulfill their responsibilities—some because they should do more, others because part of the money for tithing should be used in fulfilling other, more exigent responsibilities.
In sum, it seems to me that the parish finance council and the pastor are making serious mistakes in setting up the tithing program. The program pressures some to contribute more than they should, and these people are being defrauded in the name of God by being told his law requires them to tithe. At the same time, the program falsely reassures others, who should contribute more than ten percent of take-home pay, that they are doing enough. The tithing program, in reality, is no different from any other inappropriate standard that might be set for meeting a common obligation that ought to be specified by each family’s or individual’s conscientious judgment.
Despite its essential defect, however, the tithing program would remind parishioners of their financial obligations, too often neglected, toward the Church and the poor. Moreover, it includes features that might well be beneficial, in particular the serious effort to elicit the cooperation of all parishioners and the replacement of other parish collections and fund-raising efforts by one regular payment of a pledged amount. Consequently, I do not suggest you reject everything about the proposed program. Instead, I recommend that you urge your pastor and the parish finance council to amend the proposal by eliminating the claim that donating ten percent of one’s income is obligatory and by forgoing any other attempt to specify the proportion of income parishioners should contribute, and instead asking each family or individual to judge conscientiously what percentage of income to pledge.53
Of course, the pastor and finance council also should make a serious effort to educate all members of the parish about their financial responsibilities toward the Church and the poor, thus helping them to form their consciences rightly in this important matter (see LCL, 169–70, 173, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14). Moreover, it would be appropriate for the council to gather and make available to all parishioners information that would help each family judge how much to pledge—the parish’s budget and amount of diocesan assessments, the number of families in the parish, their approximate average net take-home pay, and so on—and to point out the probable implications of this information for a sound judgment by an average family in the parish.
48. See Robert A. Oden, Jr., “Taxation in Biblical Israel,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 12 (1984): 170–71.
49. See LCL, 169–70, 173, 801. On the complex history of Catholic Church financial support, see Robert L. Kealy, Diocesan Financial Support: Its History and Canonical Status (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana Facultas Iuris Canonici, 1986).
50. Council of Trent, session 25, Decree on General Reform, chap. 12, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 2, Trent to Vatican II, ed. Norman P. Tanner, S.J., (London and Washington, D.C.: Sheed and Ward, and Georgetown University Press, 1990), 792.
51. In the early Church, with no law of tithe or taxation, Christians recognized a great moral obligation of sacrificial giving; see Kealy, op. cit., 6–50.
52. See John L. Ronsvalle and Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving through 1993 (Champaign, Ill.: Empty Tomb, 1995), 59–78, for a discussion of Catholic giving patterns, in the context of a study of giving by members of various Christian denominations in the United States. A complex set of factors must be taken into account in any attempt to explain the differences; see Dean R. Hoge and Fenggang Yang, “Determinants of Religious Giving in American Denominations: Data from Two Nationwide Surveys,” Review of Religious Research, 36 (1994–95): 123–48.
53. Virginia Ann Hodgkinson and Murray S. Weitzman, The Charitable Behavior of Americans, a national survey conducted by Yankelovich, Skelly and White, Inc. (Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1986), 33–34, show that donors to churches and synagogues who pledge a fixed amount give almost twice as much as those who do not, and donors who pledge a percentage of income donate almost three times as much as those who do not pledge at all.