What is tithing? By William J. Byron, S.J.

Tithing is a word that simply means one-tenth. Historically, it has been associated with financial support of the Church and Church-related charities. The tithe looks back to the ancient practice of offering to God a small portion of the harvest or the sacrifice of a young animal to express gratitude on the part of those who enjoy the fruits of the harvest and animal life around them. The sacrifice was also an acknowledgment of the people’s dependence on the Creator for what was needed to sustain life.

You don’t hear much these days about what used to be taught as the “precepts of the Church.” These precepts are disciplinary; they do not contain doctrinal pronouncements. They emerged from time to time in the early history of the Church as a means of guiding the faithful to live good Catholic lives — e.g., hearing Mass on Sundays and holy days, contributing financially to the support of the Church, receiving the Eucharist, confessing one’s sins. These precepts have varied in number from country to country and century to century in the life of the Church.

Strictly interpreted, the precept of tithing would mean pledging one-tenth of one’s income to the support of the Church. Few Catholics do this today, nor are any obliged to meet the 10 percent standard. There is, of course, a moral obligation to help the poor and provide support at an appropriate level to the Church and Church-related charities. And this obligation does not end at age 65.

To respond to your point about multiple earners in a family, the obligation falls on each. Although 10 percent would be an ideal, it is not a law. It would be wonderful if Catholic families — in the spirit of the tithe — would budget an agreed-upon percentage of family income to be distributed annually to good causes.

It is encouraging to see that young Catholics these days are notably generous in their commitment to community service. As they grow older, their Church just might resurrect and reconstruct the tithe — 10 percent — and break it down to 5 percent of income and five hours a week of community service. This adds up to an apples-and-oranges total of 10.

If, as the old saying reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive,” a revival of the tithe would produce a nice return on that investment to all who give with the certain knowledge that the Lord will never be outdone in generosity.



2443 God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them: “Give to him who begs from you, do not refuse him who would borrow from you”; “you received without pay, give without pay.”232 It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones.233 When “the poor have the good news preached to them,” it is the sign of Christ’s presence.234

2444 “The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition.” This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor.235 Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.”236 It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.237

2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.238

2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”239 “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:240
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.241

2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.242 Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.243 Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God:244

He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise.245 But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.246 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?247

2448 “In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”248

2449 Beginning with the Old Testament, all kinds of juridical measures (the jubilee year of forgiveness of debts, prohibition of loans at interest and the keeping of collateral, the obligation to tithe, the daily payment of the day-laborer, the right to glean vines and fields) answer the exhortation of Deuteronomy: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.'”249 Jesus makes these words his own: “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”250 In so doing he does not soften the vehemence of former oracles against “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals . . .,” but invites us to recognize his own presence in the poor who are his brethren:251

When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and the sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her: “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.252

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