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Catholic Tithing and Almsgiving

“[I felt] free, the opposite of heavy.”

Karl Rabeder lives an opulent lifestyle.  He has a talent for making and spending money.  He’s been blessed with all the worldly possessions most people could imagine.  He has a villa overlooking the Alps, an $850,000 farmhouse, gliders, expensive cars and a fortune worth about five million dollars.

But he’s trying to get rid of it all.

Mr. Rabeder says that while vacationing with his wife in Hawaii it hit him how soulless his five-star lifestyle was. He felt like everyone around him was acting and it prevented him from knowing real people.  On gliding trips to South America and South Africa he had the nagging feeling that there must be a connection between his wealth and the poverty around him.  This feeling of injustice that he felt eventually prompted him to downsize until there there was nothing left and it has given him a sense of freedom that he never had when he was surrounded by luxury. 

The Bible and the Catholic Church teaches that the goods of the earth are meant for all mankind, not just for those who can afford them.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the, “goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” And that the, “appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are called to give away all that they have.  It means that people who have been blessed (and who in America has not been blessed?) have a moral obligation to use their treasures for the betterment of those around them.

In some cases this may mean giving away everything, but for most people it means being a good steward of what has been given to you.  Our Christian identity is based on the belief that we are created in God’s image and likeness.  Being created by God and for God means that “we are not our own.” (1 Cor 6:19)  If we belong to God then all that we have belongs to God and like the wise steward, we are entrusted with the responsibility of giving even more back than what has initially been given to us.

The Church’s understanding of the universal destination of all goods stands in stark contrast to the socialism that is immediately brought to mind when hearing such a phrase.  St. Thomas Aquinas argued that by defending private property and ownership, wealth is “spread around” much more efficiently and effectively than by simply abolishing wealth and dividing it among everyone.

Aquinas gives three reasons why this is the case.  He says that people take better care of their own property than they do public property.  Visit a public restroom to see how this is true.  He adds that when the law recognizes and defends ownership there are fewer disputes.  It is pretty hard to argue that a house is yours if someone else holds the deed.  And finally, if a person knows that he can use his property with minimal influence from others, he will work harder to produce more. (Summa II,II,66)  If you fear that your business could be taken away from you then you have little motivation to make it a successful business.

What is interesting about Karl Rabeder is that he (wisely) didn’t just send an oversized novelty check to some charity.  He has what Frank J. Hanna, author of What Your Money Means, would call a “vocation to wealth creation”.  For Karl, simply giving away his fortune would have been an irresponsible use of the money-making talent he has been given.  Instead, he has chosen to form a microcredit charity that provides small loans and business strategies to poor people in Latin America who are trying to start their own businesses.  He is teaching people how to fish, as the proverb goes.  By establishing and supervising this charitable organization he is ensuring that his fortune provides long-term help for anyone with the motivation to improve his own situation.  And even though Karl is trading his spacious Alpine home for a small apartment in Innsbruck, he can call himself free for the first time.

What Would It Take to Call Yourself Free?

Did you know that Catholics give less to charity than almost any other major U.S. religion?  Christians in general tithe about 2.2% of their income.  While that number isn’t much to be proud of, Catholics average half that amount according to Charles Zech’s Why Catholics Don’t Give …And What Can Be Done About It.

In the Old Testament almsgiving was an essential part of the Hebrew religion.  They had three tithes to make, which exceeded the ten percent tithe that we usually think about.  Ten percent was the amount they had to contribute to the place the LORD chose to make a home for his name.  This included ten percent of all their wealth, not just money.  In addition to the annual tithe, a third-year tithe would be given to the Levites, widows and the poor.  Finally, every seventh year all debts would be forgiven and people would have to help one another in their needs. Of all that was given, the best was required.  A man would give the finest of his flock as the tithe and if he desired to keep this offering he would have to buy it back at a fifth more than its value. (Lev 27:30) 

The problem with having many possessions is that they can distract us from our identities as children of God.  Money can be a great blessing but it can also cause a person to lose his soul.  It doesn’t matter whether you have very little money or great amounts of wealth, the temptation to use it selfishly is a danger for most of us. The Certified Financial Planner Board estimates that nearly one third of lottery winners end up bankrupt.  While this could be because they give it all away, it is more likely that this wealth is wasted on big homes and fast cars.  What is obvious is that people who have large sums of money given to them unexpectedly are generally not good stewards of their wealth.

The Person Who is Trustworthy in Small Matters is Also Trustworthy in Great Ones (Lk 16:10)
To avoid becoming too attached to our possessions we must intentionally detach ourselves from them. This has to be done with prayer and deliberation.  Thomas Zordani, author of Faith Finances, says that when he is counseling a family on how to get out of debt he tells them that they need to begin tithing before they set aside money for anything else.  Although it may seem like a great burden, he says that once a budget has been established it becomes apparent that the family was tithing already – but to the wrong god.  It is easy to come up with ten percent when you spend money on coffee from Starbucks and you eat out for lunch every day.

Zordani goes on to say that tithing and giving alms forces a person to take control of his finances.  It keeps the universal destination of goods at the forefront, which serves as the reminder that God is the provider of all that we have.  It also means that we have to trust that God will continue to provide for our needs as we struggle to provide for the needs of others. 

How Much Should I Tithe?

The traditional amount that a person should tithe is ten percent.  Asking whether that means gross or net is not really relevant if you fall into the 1.1% category of Catholic givers. Zordani recommends tithing 10%.  He cites the prophet Malachi (Mal 3:8-11) who says that if you do not give the full tithe you are cheating God.  Frank Hanna goes even further and says that if you have non-essential income you should be using anywhere from ten to one hundred percent of it for charitable purposes.  Regardless of how much you determine God is calling you to give, it is essential that you give it with a cheerful heart (1 Cor 9:6-9).

God’s Promise

The same passage that warns against cheating God also promises a great reward for those who give generously.  It says that the floodgates of heaven will be opened and you will receive blessings in abundance.  The New Testament says the same thing.  “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you and still more will be given to you.” (Mk 4:24-25)

Some people will be called to tithe ten percent and some us may be called to give away everything we have, but everyone has to make the choice.  Will you answer the call as Karl Rabeder did or will you walk away like the rich man?  The words of St. Ambrose haunted Frank Hanna until he committed himself to using his wealth for the benefit of others.  St. Ambrose said, “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak you store away.  The money you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

Start Giving Today, Start Giving Right Now

According to Why Catholics Don’t Give, one of the reasons Catholics remain so uncharitable is because they fail to plan.  If you faithfully put a $1 in the collection basket every Sunday you’ll have given $52 dollars by the end of the year.  That’s a percentage of .0011 for a family with an income of $45,000 a year. Wow.  You cannot base your charitable donations on the amount you have in your wallet when it’s time for the collection.  Even if you put in $20 a week you’d only be at the 2.2 percent that the average Christian of any denomination gives.

Instead, pray about what God is asking of you and build your budget around it.  Even if you have a talent for growing wealth you can’t “work the money” for years with the intention of giving a greater sum later.  There are people who need your help now.  Most arguments that involve increasing wealth in order to give more later are really excuses not to give at all.  Giving now helps those who can’t afford to wait until tomorrow.

If you give with a happy heart Frank Hanna says that it will form you in virtue.  You will learn to develop faith in God’s providence.  You will learn humility because in giving you accept that someone else is going to be making choices about how your money is spent.  You will grow in generosity by learning to let go now and you will set a good example for others who look to you for inspiration.

The Challenge

Frank Zordani offers this challenge in Faith Finances:  Commit to a ten percent tithe for six months and then assess where you are financially.  After six months if you feel you’ve been more generous to God than He’s been to you, stop tithing. 

With Lent just beginning, now is the perfect time to accept this challenge and start supporting your parish and other organizations that give so much, spiritually and physically, to those who need it. 

If you’re on the edge and want to learn more about this ancient tradition and the benefits it brings to the world, you can read the following sources for this article.

This article brought to you by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.  Written by James Rutherford.

What You Money Means and How To Use It Well by Frank J. Hanna
Faith Finances by Thomas E. Zordani
Why Catholics Don’t Give …And What Can Be Done About It by Charles E. Zech
Making Stewardship a Way of Life by Andrew Kemberling and Mila Glodava
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