What is tithing?

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What is the meaning of tithing as taught by the Catholic Church? I understand it is a certain percentage of one’s earnings. If there is more than one wage-earner in the family, does the tithe apply to all income? To whom does the money go — the pastor, the parish, or other Catholic charities? Is tithing a law of the Church? And, finally, how long are you expected to tithe — to age 65? To death?
– K R.L., Saskatchewan, Canada

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.  CD

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