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Why Are Catholics Cheapskates Regarding Giving?

August 7, AD2016

Birgit - offering

What Jesus Said to Us About Giving

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us about giving, “Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, and inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also your heart will be…Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be required of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12: 33-34, 48)

The Current Reality

Today, a group of laity at a Catholic parish meets for some catechesis and fellowship. The topic focuses on being a loving witness to Christ through the way we live our lives. After a short presentation, there are a few discussion questions covering subtopics from the presentation, such as how we might show our family and friends that we love them; praying not only for our family and friends but for our enemies as well; helping the poor; and…tithing. Then a funny thing happens during the small group discussion—no one talks about charitable giving or tithing. It simply is ignored. “Just look away, ignore it and maybe it won’t come up. (Donations are my personal business anyway.)” Why is it that some Catholics just do not like to talk about or even think about the concept of religious giving, much less about tithing per se?

For over three decades in my CPA practice, I was blessed to help a variety of individuals with their tax compliance and planning needs. I never did a statistical analysis of my clients’ giving habits, but I can tell you this: with a few notable exceptions, most of my non-Catholic clients donated far more to their churches than did the Catholics. As it turns out, my anecdotal evidence is supported by multiple research studies.

Now, before you press the “send” key with an angry response to this article, please humor me as I explain my thinking on all of this. Yes, I know that many give far more to the Church and other worthy organizations than some averages from research would suggest. That must mean, however, that many more give far less than the averages.

Research Shows

The Philanthropy Roundtable analyzed data from a study done by Empty Tomb that showed religious donations in the late 1990s by Catholics, at 1.5% of gross income, running about half that of mainline Protestants, and about one-third to one-fourth of what evangelical and charismatic/Pentecostal Christians were giving.

But, you may be thinking, these are old statistics! Surely it must be different today? Matthew Kelly, in his book, The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, discussed research showing that only 1.9% of American Catholics were tithing, while about 5% of Americans as a whole tithed. In 2007, Christians of all denominations in the U.S. gave an average of just over $1,400 to their church and other charities, while Catholics as a subgroup of that population gave just under $1,000—about the same as non-Christians.

Karl Keating of Catholic Answers subsequently wrote about research done by the Presbyterian Church USA that showed the average Catholic gives about one-half of what the average Evangelical gives, and a bit less than that percentage in comparison with average mainline Protestants. Similarly, Notre Dame’s Catholic Social and Pastoral Research Initiative (CSPRI) published a report based on a 2010 survey that shows Catholics are less generous in voluntary financial giving than other Christian groups in the U.S. Although the research shows varying ratios of our giving to other denominations’ giving, no matter how you look at it, we Catholics do not, on average, give as much to the Church as members of other denominations give to their churches.

The Spirituality of Giving

Loye Young did a nice job of explaining the theology of giving in his Catholic Stand article with that title a couple of years ago, so I will not retread that ground. Religious giving is included in the broader concept of stewardship. Fr. Andrew Kemberling, Chair of the International Catholic Stewardship Council (ICSC), and Mila Glodava, coauthors of Making Stewardship a Way of Life, list the core values of stewardship on their parish website:

  • “Identity: We are God’s children…God created man in his image…The Catechism states: ‘man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself.’
  • Trust: If we are God’s children…destine to return to God, we can trust that God will provide for all our needs. We need not worry about anything. Conversely, we also need to be trustworthy and honest in everything we do and entrusted to us. We need to be worthy of God’s trust…
  • Gratitude: God is the source of everything we are and have. We will not exist without Him. We need, therefore, to be grateful…Jesus is our model of gratitude. He gave thanks always. Father Andrew suggests making a “thank-God” list… [to] think more of what we have and not what we do not have.
  • Love: God loves us first. He created us in His image…when we sinned, He sent us his only Son to redeem us, and the Holy Spirit to sanctify us so that we can return to Him and see Him face to face in heaven…Now we need to return His love by loving Him back… [which] requires that we give. We express our love by giving of our time, talent and treasure.”

Why We Don’t Give

Those in the know, involved in research or working in the trenches doing fundraising, suggest a number of reasons for Catholic philanthropic behavior patterns. Some studies have suggested that, from a practical perspective, because many Catholic parishes are larger—some far larger—than many other denominations’ communities, there is less practical need to give more. The needs of the parish get spread out over a larger number of families. They also cite the fact that our priests are paid less than non-Catholic pastors and the fact that our facility costs are spread over multiple Masses compared to one worship service for the non-Catholics. Although there may be some truth in this, it does not really answer why we collectively are not inspired to give more than we do.

The CSPRI report on Catholic giving concludes that a lack of spiritual engagement with money is the biggest reason why our giving levels lag behind those of other groups. In other words, we tend to compartmentalize, keeping our money matters separate from faith matters, rather than looking at our money as something that is ALL a gift from God. Attaining this spiritual engagement—connecting the dots—requires proper formation, part of which comes through the messages delivered from the ambo, though. The CSPRI team notes that a fairly common approach used in parishes to address giving, known as the “pay the bills” method, generally results in less spiritual engagement. That seems reasonable—“pay the bills” promotes an attitude that is focused on doing the minimum necessary to get by—with respect not only to treasure, but also to time and talents.

What Can Be Done

The CSPRI report suggests that creating the context with an overarching parish mission and vision can inspire people to work toward something greater. This includes generating the awareness that money and the things we are blessed to have are gifts from God, and we are called to manage them appropriately as good stewards. But how do we generate this awareness among a broad cross section of the faithful? It seems that it would start with the pastors and their homilies, engaging the people in the pews, promoting deeper prayer lives and involvement in parish activities to enhance overall engagement in the Church.  It needs to include overcoming catechesis gaps that seem to exist in the Church in America today so we all understand the spiritual connection with money and things. The good news in this regard is that many great resources exist to help a parish get some traction in such culture changes, such as Fr. Kemberling’s book and the ICSC mentioned above.

Inspiring increased giving deserves some attention.  If we are looking for inspiration to give more, consider this: the folks at Empty Tomb have estimated that we in the Catholic Church could generate tens of billions of dollars more funding if we bumped up our giving up a bit.  This money could be used to carry out the corporal works of mercy for our less fortunate brothers and sisters, for evangelization and for more thorough formation of our members—in short for carrying out the Great Commission. What better way to give witness to the Great Commission than a bit of sacrificial giving to support it? Think about the possibilities here—we are not talking about huge amounts individually, but together, as the Body of Christ, enough to change the lives of billions of people—if only we gave just a tad more.

Giving as Individuals

On an individual basis, we might want to consider some prayerful reflection and introspection, asking the Holy Spirit to open the ears of our hearts to the Truth and God’s will for us, as we ponder questions such as the following:

  • Do I yearn to have wealth, status or approbation more than I yearn to love God with all my heart, soul and being?
  • Am I attached to my wealth, status, and the opinions of others, or can I be indifferent to them—indifferent in the sense that if they bring me closer to God, they are good for the time being, but if they draw me away from Him, I need to get rid of them?
  • Eusebius tells us that we naturally dwell on what we desire—what do I dwell on—my desire for God and conformity with His will, or something else?
  • Have my possessions made me a “slave” due to my inordinate concern about them and their potential loss, which taints my judgment?
  • How do I tangibly show my love for God?
  • At my death, when God asks me to account for how I handled all the gifts He gave me, what kind of response will I be able to give Him?
  • How do I use my gifts from God to help those less fortunate than I?
  • Do I trust in God’s providence for me—that He knows what is best for me?
  • What am I afraid of? Our Lord tells us not to be afraid, but to trust in Him, and to focus on Him and on the inexhaustible treasure of heaven—so why am I anxious about the trappings of this short life on earth?
  • Can I, as St. Ignatius of Loyola prayed, ask God to teach me to “give and not to count the cost?”
  • Can I find a way to increase my giving incrementally over a few years to get to a level that I know in my heart is what I should do?

It really is true—God will NOT be outdone in generosity—we just need to take the first step and see for ourselves.  Ask anyone who already is tithing and they will tell you all about it.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Dom is a Benedictine-educated cradle Catholic, and something of a revert to the faith. In addition to consulting to management in the CPA profession and elsewhere, he and his wife of 40 years attempt to live according to the three pillars of Church authority--Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. They are both active at their parish where he is an Instituted Acolyte and a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus.

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  • Ladasha Smithson

    The real reason? Because they don’t see where their money goes. The parish building is ugly, the music is bad and ministries serve only a few. Most of the money is sent to Africa or Mexico. That is not helping our neighbors.

    • Dom C

      We in developed countries often take for granted how well we have it here compared to developing countries such as Africa, Mexico, Central America, or war-torn countries in the middle East, etc. People in those countries desperately need help from people like us. They also are our neighbors, albeit further away geographically.

      If we don’t like what we think is going on at the parish, we need to get involved and influence decisions–get financial reports, talk to the finance council members. Maybe one needs occasionally even change parishes if necessary, but that seems like an easy way out instead of sticking around to effect some positive change–just my opinion, of course.

      The point that people like Fr. Kemberling and the Notre Dame researchers make is that we each need to look at what God’s done for us and respond accordingly. Research shows that for whatever reason, we collectively don’t seem to be doing that unfortunately.

  • DLink

    A couple of comments about my own situation which may or may not have relevance to some others. I am paying my granddaughter’s tuition to Catholic school. No small matter but her parents can no longer afford to do so as tuition has risen to equal that of elite academies. Seems the Church has forgotten the primary purpose of these schools. Then there is the annual Bishop’s collection. A look at the organizations where the money goes and one gets thoroughly discouraged. Over 60% goes to politically correct social nonsense that simply gets everyone’s ticket punched. The declining number of practicing Catholics, especially the youth, can be seen by their absence at weekend masses. Finally, I donate to the St Vincent de Paul as they work directly with the needy but not Catholic Charities as they are little more than an arm of the government from which they receive about 65% of their funding. Times have changed in the past six decades and not for the better.

    • Fr. John Higgins

      I agree with your evaluation. Some Catholic schools have gone way out of line with tuition, and it’s going to get worse with the minimum wage mandate from the government. We used to have Sisters as teachers and they worked nearly for free (room and board and a few clothes were all that they required). Very few Sisters and Priests had access to a car and most rectories and convents had only one telephone and a secretary or receptionist and a cook/housekeeper (for the rectory). Times sure have changed!

    • Larry Bud

      Agreed, St. Vincent de Paul is the one Church-related charity that I do directly support (financially and with material donations) because I can see where my money is going. Catholic Charities in my diocese (it’s not called that; I forget what the actual name is) is really no better than United Way in terms of the mish-mash of things that get funded.

  • ottomears

    Great article. Having been raised Evangelical Protestant and now a Catholic for 15 years, this is something I hear about frequently. My thoughts: Evangelical church is mostly a one-stop experience: A large evangelical church will support many missionaries and perhaps has a social service program offsite in its community, among many other services/activities.

    The Catholic Church is different in that the parish relies on the institutional Church to provide charity to its communities, on religious orders and apostolates to conduct missionary work, and religious institutions to for education and even personal spiritual formation. Each of these have fundraising functions and if you are a Catholic donor, you support all/most of them. If I am giving to my Catholic college and my high school, my local Catholic Charities, the bishop’s appeal, and the local Franciscan retreat house, I am not giving as much to my parish. But I am likely as generous or more so to the Church than my evangelical neighbor.

    • Dom C

      The Notre Dame study looked at Catholic giving to religious and other philanthropic needs, so it’s not just about weekly collection basket issues, it seems.

      As well, in our diocese(s) we’ve belonged to, the notion of tithing was to look at giving 5% to the church and 5% to the other types of orgs. like the ones you refer to.

  • Larry Bud

    I donate more than $1 a week to the parishes I attend. But not much more. I largely disapprove of how the parishes and the diocese spend money. (And that’s not even considering the abuse lawsuits, mind you.) I think the parishes and diocese employ far too many lay people, way too many “directors” of this and that. They spend lavishly on bringing in “retreat speakers” which is a cottage industry unto itself. They are apparently are taking in enough cash to do this, and I don’t want to make the problem worse.

    I make much more sizable donations to charities where I can see exactly how the money is being spent – supporting science clubs in the local schools, etc.

    • Fr. John Higgins

      Perhaps you should find a parish where the money is spent according to your approval. Join the Finance Council so you get a good look at the books and can have a voice in what happens with the money. I like having people know what’s going on in the Parish where I am pastor.

    • Larry Bud

      Well Father, that’s good advice, but it seems to me that all the parishes in my area have the same general approach to hiring staff and in the kinds of programs they put on.

    • Fr. John Higgins

      Larry, that’s not a good thing, is it? Well, it seems that you’re doing the best you can by supporting St. Vincent de Paul. At least you know that the money you are giving is truly going for charity and not lining someone’s pockets.

    • Dom C

      Just a comment on this particular thread–unless we speak up as laity, we can’t expect any change (recognizing, of course, that the pastor has the final say). I’ve served on finance councils and will tell you that many of the parishioners harbor incorrect assumptions about how the money is being managed, what it is going for, etc.

      In most of the cases I’ve seen, the parishes do far more with much less than many other institutions could do.

      Comes back again, it seems, to looking at the spirituality of money and stewardship as a starting point–just my two-bits, but I could be wrong.

  • Dennis Neylon

    The issue of charitable giving bothers me a lot, and I have come to a deeper sense of what charitable giving actually means. If we only count cash donations for which someone gets a receipt for the purpose of declaring it on their taxes, I believe a vast amount of charitable giving is missed. It does not begin to account for time spent visiting the sick, those in prison, helping in soup kitchens or homeless shelters, teaching the faith to children or converts, getting the church ready for services, etcetera. I am not even starting to touch the surface here, but I hope you get my point. I have not been particularly generous at my parish with money or time, both of which I am short of. But I am short of time and money because of participating in the care of my disabled brother in law, to whom my wife and I have provided a home for many years, assisting my mother in law in her terminal illness, and helping my own family. I pray for a list of people (family, co-workers, neighbors, classmates). We have helped our children and other in laws, both financially and in other ways. It is easy to say people need to give more money; it may be even harder to get people to give of something more valuable — our time. But all those who talk about charitable giving seem to be tied up with financial contributions. How do we begin to put a monetary value on time given by Catholic religious or by lay volunteers? I used to worry about my lack of financial support; then I remembered that Christ said “what did you did for the least among you?” not “how much did you donate (or pay in taxes) to pay someone else to do for the least among you?”

    • Dom C

      We all need to do what we can and it sounds like you’re doing that. It’s a concept of sacrificial giving, not equal giving.

  • Fr. John Higgins

    We started a Bible Study in our parish. A young man showed up who isn’t a member of our parish. I know him because he’s a firefighter and I am the chaplain for the firefighters. He sat next to me and took a great deal of interest in our discussion of Passover. At the end he reached for his wallet. He said when does the basket come around? I said “We don’t have a collection at Bible Study”. He seemed shocked. He went on to tell me that he and his wife tithe at their Church, that’s 10%. He explained that this gives him a lot of joy. Catholics usually don’t understand that concept at all.

  • Dhaniele

    I wonder if part of the problem is that the priests are wary of raising this topic (and many others) for fear of irritating the people. I remember how when I was young and they were trying to pay for the parish school, priests would be accused of always talking about money even though people knew that the parish had serious financial problems to face.

    • Dom C

      Could be. I think that it comes back to Fr. Kemberling’s and the CSPRI study’s suggestions that we are not well schooled in the spirituality of giving–that we don’t understand that what we have comes from God–all of it, and that we shouldn’t compartmentalize our secular things separate and apart from our spiritual blessings, etc.

  • Gus

    I’m not disagreeing with your point or the stats you present, Dom, but I do want to comment on one statement that you made: “with a few notable exceptions, most of my non-Catholic clients donated far more to their churches than did the Catholics.”

    I think Kevin Aldrich’s point(below) is valid, as is the point made by adam aquinas, but since the sexual abuse scandal didn’t really break until the year 2000 some kind of before and after comparison is called
    for. Also, I would be interested in seeing some data on overall “charitable giving” by Catholics compared to Protestants. If I’m not mistaken, Lutherans (for example) who send their children to parish schools “tithe” in order to be able claim the tuition (which is then paid by parish) on their taxes. Why the Catholic Church has never done this I’m not sure, but it may have something to do with the 501.C.3 structure of the Diocese.

    • Dom C

      Actually some parishes do push the tithe concept and out of that support the parish schools, as I understand it.

      As to overall giving, the Notre Dame report addresses religious and other giving,

      “Many Catholics in the United States rarely engage
      in voluntary financial giving. When they do so, they
      provide relatively meager monetary donations to
      their Church or to non-religious causes. In our study,
      American Catholics are less likely than the rest of the
      population to report giving 10 percent or more of their
      income as voluntary contributions, with only about
      one in six Catholics reporting meeting this standard.”—from the CSPRI report linked above

  • adam aquinas

    As of August, 2015 the U.S. Catholic Church paid out $4 billion dollars litigating and settling clergy abuse claims….could this fact be part of the reason Catholics don’t really contribute?
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2015/11/sexual-abuse-claims-cost-u-s-catholic-church-4-billion/

    • james

      Not much of a fact. At one time a dollar or even change swelled the CC’s coffers quite will – until
      it lost almost 70% of its contributions because of dogmatic errors as perceived by the laity, who
      stopped going to church. If everyone came back the CC would be thrilled with the monetary gains it could make in all areas. We don’t support candidates whose platforms will not represent our values and the same goes for a theology that is out of touch with human aspirations and reason.

    • Gus

      James, “a theology that is out of touch with human aspirations” is not going to be much of a theology since theology is by definition the study of God and His truths regarding faith and morality. You are suggesting that man’s aspirations should take precedence over The Logos. That is the epitome of hubris.

    • james

      At least the math holds up.

    • Gus

      So you think the Catholic Church should change its dogma because “the laity” (you and others who feel the way you do) perceive it to be wrong. So the Church should tell people what they want to hear to get the dollars flowing. That’s already been done. It’s called Reformed Theology. A lot of Protestant mega-churches got built that way. Sounds like you want to be a Catholic but only on your own terms. You should really look into the five solas of Protestantism. They might be exactly the
      kind of theology your looking for.

    • james

      Goodnight, Gus.

    • Guy McClung

      I have often wondered about all that money. Most certainly most of it was from the faithful in the pews. Isn’t there a part of canon law that prevents collected money from being used for something other than that for which it was collected? If so, do not the bishops who have paid out the 4B$ owe it to the faithful? I am surprised that the same lawyers who figured out that the bishops would do everything to keep secret what has happened, and pay out huge sums, have not figured out that the faithful have been defrauded, not only under canon law, but under civil law. I know many who refuse to donate to a parish since a %-typically 10%-will go to a bishop, the same guys who have paid out our 4B$ for their crimes and sins.

    • Dom C

      We see/hear that a lot–that people won’t give because of past litigation, disagreement with pastors, bishops, lay leaders. I’ve had some of the same feelings. That being said, the spirituality of money is such that everything we have comes from Him–giving back some of it isn’t so bad.

    • Ronky

      No, the problem of Catholics being cheapskates (on average) with giving to the Church compared to our separated brethren, goes back many decades pre-dating the abuse scandals.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    A problem in this kind of analysis is the definition of a Catholic. Are we talking about cultural Catholics or those who actually practice their faith?

    • Dom C

      Some of these findings are based on diocesan info, so it’s not just CINO stats. Also, my reference to anecdotal evidence was based on church goers of all denominations, Catholics included. Hope this helps. Thx.

  • Paul

    It’s sad how many one dollar bills I see in the collection. Especially when you think that many of the people donating one dollar have been doing it possibly for decades and how much less a dollar is worth now than 20 or 30 years ago.

    If the suggestion were made that everyone increase there giving by one dollar all those people would automatically double there giving.