Home for me is a 16 foot travel trailer at a camping “resort” in San Antonio, Texas. One afternoon last week, I was sitting in my lawn chair under the awning, which serves as my living room, when I saw my friend Adam walk by. He was carrying a plastic bag of Hot Pockets and Cokes he’d bought at the drugstore down the street.
Adam (that’s his real name) is in his early twenties, thin as a rail, and lives alone in a one room cabin down the hill from me. The cabin has no running water, so he uses the camp facilities for the restroom and to shower.
He works for minimum wage on an asphalt crew in the 100 degree Texas summer heat. His thick brown hair is sunbleached to a burnt orange color, because he never wears a hat. I see him most every day as he goes to and from his job. He doesn’t have a car, so a company pickup comes to get him and bring him home. He rides in the back of the truck. He always smiles. I’ve never seen him unhappy.
Anyway, as he was walking by, I said hello and so he stopped to chat. We exchanged some small talk about hot the day was. Gesturing to the computer on my lap, he asked what I was working on. I told him I was writing an article about giving to God and what that means for our salvation. He looked at me like he remembered something, but forgot how he knew. What he said next, in his slow Texas accent, was as lucid, theologically accurate summary of Christian giving as I have ever heard.
“You mean tithin’, right?” Adam paused and squinted his eyes. “God owns everything, so when he gives me something, I give him back 10%. If I do, he promises me a blessin’.” Then he shook his head, grinned broadly, and said, “But I don’t give for the blessin’. I give because he wants me to. It’s all his anyway.”
I was reminded of the words of our Lord: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” [Luke 10:21]. The article I was writing is 9,000 words long, but Adam had summarized it in 45 words!
I told him that if everyone understood what he just said, I wouldn’t have to write the article. He laughed and said, “Not everybody gets it.”
Fundraising is not working.
American Catholics apparently do not get it, because they are not giving. Every study of denominational giving in America over the last few decades shows that American Catholics give to charity (including the Church) about half of what members of other denominations do. (See, e.g., Resources for American Christianity, Church Giving Tied To Gratitude And A Sense Of Mission (2009); Julia Duin, Giving in Different Denominations (2001); Generous Giving, Giving among Church Denominations (1993).)
The Catholic Church in America has lapsed into a fundraising mentality. Labor intensive festivals, raffles, lotteries, and chicken dinners are ubiquitous. When those aren’t enough, queued up are the frothy, emotional fundraising pleas from the pulpit.
All of it is backfiring. Instead of inspiring the laity to good works, the calls for more money breed disinterest, resignation, and sometimes even incipient anger.
Preaching about the needs of the Church and the poor does not inspire the laity to give more, because the laity is already convinced. Sincere Christians want to give to support the Church and to help the needy. The laity are enormously grateful for the many acts of mercy the Church provides through the sacraments and the often heroic actions of the clergy and religious. The Holy Spirit speaks in the hearts of the faithful and enkindles love of neighbor, the suffering, and the poor.
The laity, though, are painfully aware of their own limitations. They know that their resources are but a drop in an ocean of need. It’s hard enough to take care of their own families, and they know they can’t solve every problem.
It is time to start teaching stewardship.
It’s time to stop the gimmicky fundraising and start talking about the truth of what the Catholic church teaches about stewardship. Even though they understand the need and want to give, the laity have a nagging feeling that somehow, the Church is off track when it is fundraising. The message from the pulpit often sounds no different than the message from the United Way.
Pope Francis seems to agree: “The Church – I repeat once again – is not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO, but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us.” Pope Francis, Message for World Youth Day 2013 at 4, May 19, 2013.
The laity need, and indeed expect, better guidance than they have been given lately. Sugarcoating the subject of money with flowery, feel-good exhortations is condescending to the people who must work by the sweat of their brow [Genesis 3:19] to earn that money. The laity need a straight-up, head-on, theologically-sound discussion of money so that they may make informed, ethically sound decisions.
Stewardship fundamentals are simple.
Fortunately, God has provided that guidance, but candidly, the laity have not heard much about it lately. Even the clergy appear not to know what Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition teach about stewardship. The fundamentals are simple: God’s ownership, our stewardship, and final accountability.
Our covenantal relationship with God compels us to offer our “first fruits” to him in sacrifice and praise. When God covenants with his people, an offering of the “first” acknowledges God’s sovereignty and gives thanks to God from whom all things come.
The first century New Testament church understood that first fruits are part of God’s plan for the sanctification of his Church. The Didache (circa 100 A.D.), commonly known as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” is the earliest known liturgical writing of the Church. It prescribes offering first fruits for the support of both the clergy and the poor:
But every true prophet that wills to abide among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have not a prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.
Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (circa 180 A.D.), written in reply to the Gnostic heresy, carefully laid out the place of the offering of the Eucharist and of the goods presented at the altar:
The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him; not that He stands in need of a sacrifice from us, but that he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted. For by the gift both honor and affection are shown forth towards the King; and the Lord, wishing us to offer it in all simplicity and innocence, did express Himself thus: Therefore, when you offer your gift upon the altar, and shall remember that your brother has ought against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then return and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24) We are bound, therefore, to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, You shall not appear in the presence of the Lord your God empty; (Deuteronomy 16:16) so that man, being accounted as grateful, by those things in which he has shown his gratitude, may receive that honor which flows from Him.
. . . . He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 18 (emphasis added)
The Fathers of Vatican II echoed and urged the same understanding of stewardship: “Indeed, it is the duty of the whole People of God, following the word and example of the bishops, to alleviate as far as they are able the sufferings of the modern age. They should do this too, as was the ancient custom in the Church, out of the substance of their goods, and not only out of what is superfluous.” Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes 88 (1965) (emphasis added).
The tithe is Catholic doctrine.
Since the time of Abraham, our first fruits offering has been identified with the tithe. “Tithe” means one tenth (10%). To tithe is to give ten percent. (In Spanish, the words diezmo and décimo are clearer.)
A common misconception is that the Catholic church does not teach tithing. Four ecumenical councils (Macon in 585, Third Lateran in 1179, Constance in 1415, and Trent in 1563) of the Catholic Church have dogmatically held, on pain of excommunication, the tithe to be binding on the morals of the faithful. St. Thomas Aquinas firmly supported the tithe in his masterpiece work, Summa Theologica (1270).
The Catholic Church continues to hold that the tithe is the minimum standard for Christian giving. The Archdiocese of St. Louis has on its website an excellent Frequently Asked Questions page about tithing, containing theologically sound, practical advice. It makes very good reading.
Giving is for the good of the soul.
The primary purpose of Christian giving is to save the giver’s soul. Saint Augustine spoke in the fifth century words that could be delivered today:
Let us give a certain portion of it. What portion? A tenth? The Scribes and Pharisees gave tithes for whom Christ had not yet shed His Blood. The Scribes and Pharisees gave tithes; lest haply you should think you are doing any great thing in breaking your bread to the poor; and this is scarcely a thousandth part of your means. And yet I am not finding fault with this; do even this. So hungry and thirsty am I, that I am glad even of these crumbs.
But yet I cannot keep back what He who died for us said while He was alive. Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. He does not deal softly with us; for He is a physician, He cuts to the quick. Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The Scribes and Pharisees gave the tenth. How is it with you? Ask yourselves. Consider what you do, and with what means you do it; how much you give, how much you leave for yourselves; what you spend on mercy, what you reserve for luxury. So then, Let them distribute easily, let them communicate, let them lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may hold on eternal life.
Augustine, Sermon 35, at ¶ 5.