This year’s Corpus Christi Sunday’s readings got me to wondering about the Church’s stance on tithing. From the first reading, Genesis 14:18-20:
In those days, Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine,
and being a priest of God Most High,
he blessed Abram with these words:
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
the creator of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your foes into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
So, since Genesis makes a reference to “a tenth of everything” and common knowledge regarding Christians and financial giving says to give ten percent of our income, Catholics must interpret “tithing” as giving ten percent to the Church, right? Maybe not. Let’s dig a little more.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
As Catholics, we don’t believe in Sola Scriptura. That is, we don’t believe in the notion that the Bible can stand on its own as the sole source of knowledge for the Christian life. We must supplement scripture with the teachings of the Magisterium, including the Catechism.
Paragraph 2447 of the Catechism makes it clear that we are called to commit works of mercy, including giving alms to the poor:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. 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. 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: He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise. But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. 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?
Though this passage does not give a specific percentage regarding how much we are to give financially, we see that giving alms is “one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity.”
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 provides further clarity:
Now in regard to the collection for the holy ones, you also should do as I ordered the churches of Galatia. On the first day of the week each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford, so that collections will not be going on when I come.
What’s interesting here is that no hard and fast number is given regarding the amount an individual should tithe. Rather, the phrase “whatever one can afford” is used in order to provide room for personal discretion. From 2 Corinthians 9:5-8:
So I thought it necessary to encourage the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for your promised gift, so that in this way it might be ready as a bountiful gift and not as an exaction. Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.
This passage encourages cheerful and free giving, not forced withholding. Just as God loves us freely, we have free will to decide the degree of love we give him and his people. God promises that the more we love (i.e., sow), the more we will reap in the long run.