Protestants, Catholics and tithing

By Father Kenneth Doyle

Catholic News Service

Editor’s note: This column previously appeared in The Message and is being repeated by Catholic News Service. Father Doyle is now retired.

Q. I grew up in a Protestant church but converted to Catholicism. Sometimes, it seems to me that Catholics give a lot less money to their churches than Protestants do. (The Sunday collections reported in our parish bulletin would, I think, be dwarfed by some Protestant parishes much smaller than our own.)

On the other hand, Catholics do seem to give a lot to charities overall. (Just in our own town, there is a Catholic hospital, several Catholic schools and many programs of human service supported by Catholic Charities). I'm wondering what the Catholic Church's view is on tithing and whether money given to Catholic, nonparochial institutions can count as tithing. (Illinois)

A. Your question brings to mind a comment I once heard from a Catholic pastor. He said: "If a Catholic couple has $50, they go out to dinner; $20, they go see a movie; $10, they get fast food. But if they have $1, they go to church."

There is some truth behind the complaint. A national study in 2003 showed that Protestants typically give 2.6% of their income to their local churches, while Catholics give 1.2%. Some analysts speculate that, because an average Catholic parish in America numbers 3,100 people while Protestant congregations are usually one-tenth that size, Catholics have a diminished sense of personal responsibility.

As your question suggests, however, the percentages given above are only part of the story. Catholics also support the nation's largest network of private healthcare institutions and social service agencies. And while the thousands of dollars paid by parents for Catholic school tuitions are technically not charitable donations, they do in fact contribute to the overall religious mission of the church.

Many Catholic dioceses recommend that their members contribute 5% of their take-home pay to their parish and an additional 5% to other charities. There is, though, no strict obligation for Catholics to tithe. Tithing is based on several Old Testament passages, such as Leviticus 27:32, which says: "The tithes of the herd and the flock, every tenth animal that passes under the herdsman's rod, shall be sacred to the Lord."

Among Christian believers, Mormons are the most strict in carrying that prescription forward. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 79% of Mormons tithe to their church. The Catholic obligation is more general: As the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses in No. 2043, "The faithful ... have the duty of providing for the material needs of the church, each according to his abilities."