Question: What is tithing; are Catholics supposed to tithe?
Answer: Since God established a visible Church, it is clear that we have the responsibility to support the operations of that Church. This would seem to be an obligation of the Natural Law, for even before the revelation of God’s Positive Law, pagan societies supported the worship of God as they knew Him in nature—often with a “tithe”—a word coming from the Anglo-Saxon word, “teotha”—meaning a “tenth” of their income. Beyond the natural recognition that we owe God our entire existence and all of our worldly goods, we have the example of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham giving tithes to the Royal Priest Melchesidech, and Jacob’s promise of tithes at Bethel.[i] The Mosaic Law made tithing obligatory:
This works out to be an annual contribution of about nineteen percent of income, plus an additional ten percent every third year. The pious Jew would, additionally, make occasional offerings of farm animals or doves to be sacrificed at the Temple. Of these sacrificial offerings, some would be offered completely to God in holocaust, some would be retained in part for the priest and his family, and some part might be enjoyed by the donor and his family.
Old Testament tithes were always on income; agricultural produce, the natural increase of animals and products derived from animals, and production due to human activity. Land itself, buildings, and the offspring of wild animals were not subject to the tithe.
With the advent of Christianity, the exact formula for determining tithes has varied somewhat with time and place—but, of course, the Natural Law obligation to support the worship and the works of God remains. Although self supporting himself, Saint Paul reminded his readers of their obligation to support the clergy and to provide for the support of the poor, the widows, and the sick.[iii] Early and Medieval Europe, of course, enjoyed the generosity of not only the hard working tithe paying citizens of Christendom, but also lavish gifts of the nobility, the wealthy, and sometimes the government. Yet, the administration of tithes posed difficulties of its own—exemptions were sometimes granted to religious orders and secular leaders, and sometimes tithes were assigned to rulers in exchange for service to the Church—both practices sometimes led to complaints of unfairness.
In English speaking countries over the past few centuries, support of the Church has become more “outcome based” than mathematical—no specific percentage of income is required, but the faithful are asked to give at a level that allows the Church to function properly. The pastor ought not have to worry about the church’s ability to make payments for things like rent or mortgage, utilities, advertising, literature, and so forth; the poor must not be ignored; vestments and altar furnishings must be attractive, clean, and in good repair; and the priest ought to live under decent conditions and have reliable transportation. Catholics ought not allow the political parties to usurp the Church’s traditional role in maintaining schools, hospitals, orphanages, and charitable institutions. The recruitment and education of new priests and religious must be provided for. Among traditional Catholics the need is acute, as not only must the clergy be supported and the poor be provided for, but virtually all of the material needs for divine worship must be provided from “scratch,” with very little being in place from earlier years. Even where the clergy are self supporting, significant expenses must be incurred for buildings, temporary quarters, maintenance, utilities, and so forth—and, it should go without saying—for vestments, linens, and sacred vessels appropriate to the worship of Almighty God.
For Americans seeking a more precise mathematical approach to supporting the Church, the definition of income appears to coincide with the federal government’s definition of “total income,” or perhaps, for younger Catholic families, “adjusted gross income.” The federal regulations allow itemized deductions for charitable purposes up to 30% of the “adjusted gross” amount without any elaborate explanation. Above 30% a special schedule must be consulted.[iv] Please be sure to speak with Father if you intend to donate more than 30% of your income to the parish and would like additional tax information.[v]J
[i] Genesis xiv; xxviii.
[iii] Cf. 1 Corinthians ix.
[iv] Per IRS 2002 1040 forms and instructions. See page A-4 and Pub. 526. This is given by way of illustration only—in practice, consult the latest instructions.
[v] And Father will probably come by and cut your grass!