How Much Should You Tithe to the Church?
A few weeks ago in our RCIA group, someone asked: “Do Catholics tithe?” This is a topic that generates some controversy.
“Give generously,” I answered.
“But generosity is very subjective,” the adult convert commented. “How can you be sure that everyone gives equitably to the Church?”
“We can’t,” I answered, “but God knows our hearts. He knows our individual needs and knows the extent of our generosity, or lack thereof. We also have a duty of care to those that the Church serves, so we hope that people give generously.”
When I went home and thought about it some more, I realised my response was inadequate.
Other Churches Have Set Tithing Percentages
Google the word “tithing” and you get 390000 results, most of them from Evangelical churches. On some sites there’s fierce debate about tithing percentages, whether to calculate it on gross or net income, whether church membership is contingent on tithing and what happens if you default. It made my head reel!
It also made me very glad that I am Catholic. On this issue at least, we’ve made it very simple: Be generous.
I realised, however, that especially for Catholics, who don’t have a culture of tithing, the concept is alien and there are many misconceptions. A friend once said to me: “The Church is so rich, it doesn’t need my hard-earned money. I have needs of my own and can only put a few coins into the collection box on Sundays.”
What Happened in the Old Testament
We need to put tithing into its proper context. It goes back to the time of the Israelites. The Old Testament describes the tithe as a payment given to the priests “in return for the service that they perform” (Numbers 18:21). The priests were the spiritual guides of the Israelites and it was their duty to care for the widows and children.
The priests didn’t till the land or produce goods to be sold. The Israelites gave a portion of their produce to the priests for their upkeep and for the good works they did for the needy.
And in the Early Church…
The Early Church also talks about tithing and we read how the people “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45).
This is still the work of the Church today. And in Africa, the Church is poor. Gone are the days when the Catholic Church received generous donations from overseas benefactors for the work in missionary countries. The Catholic Church in South Africa is expected to be self-sufficient.
How is the Money Distributed?
Few people, it seems, know how our Sunday collection money is distributed.
In more well-off parishes, about 20% goes to the diocese. Contrary to popular belief, this money doesn’t go directly into the bishop’s pocket! It is used to help support poor parishes which cannot afford to pay the basic living costs of the parish priest.
Other money is channelled into the diocese’s social programmes, the education of our future priests, and some of it is also used to pay for the administrative costs of the diocese.
What about the other 80% of our Sunday collection?
The Costs of Running a Parish
Well, the parish priest needs to eat and he also receives an allowance for his modest personal needs. Some money is set aside for medical emergencies or to pay for a medical health plan. The parish also needs to pay for the running cost of a basic car for the priest to make pastoral calls and carry out other priestly duties that have been assigned to him.
The parish itself has running costs: water, electricity, phone and Internet, regular maintenance of the church and presbytery, security, salaries for cleaning staff and, if the parish can afford it, a parish secretary.
And don’t forget the cost of buying the hosts for Holy Communion!
In addition to all this, many parishes also run outreach programmes and they channel a percentage of the Sunday collection directly into projects that help the destitute and vulnerable members of society.
So let’s return to the question: How much should we give?
We have Different Commitments and Resources
We have a duty and are called to give generously. But the Church also recognises that our individual needs are different.
For example, as a single person, I have fewer financial commitments than a family with several children and elderly parents who need care. In South Africa, thousands of families live on grants and in many cases grandparents raise children.
I think it’s immoral to ask someone who receives only R1500 a month and has many mouths to feed to give 10% of their income to the Church. It’s equally immoral for someone who lives comfortably and has more than enough money to spare to give little or nothing.
Giving Time is Just as Important
There are people who are generously helping struggling family members and friends. Others donate considerable time and money to non-religious organisations that help the poor.
This is also important. They’re not giving it directly to the Church, but their offering of love emanates directly from their love of Christ.
In conclusion: the Church does not force us to give a set percentage of our income. Instead, she appeals to our conscience.
We Owe God Everything We Have
Everything we have received comes from the grace of God. We must give thanks for what we have received, and we have a duty of care to those who have nothing.
Jesus was very harsh with those who meticulously counted out the tithe, but forgot the more important things: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others (Mt 23:23).”
So, then, how much should you give? Only you can know that.
Read past columns by Sarah-Leah Pimentel