Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tithing and Charity in Truth:
Supporting the Church and Poor, and the Free Market

One answer offered by some Christians (mostly Protestants) to the matter of supporting the Church, including engaging in charity to the poor, is for people to tithe, that is, giving 10 percent of one's income for the benefit of the Church (see Gen. 14:20).

Not to get into a big economics discussion here, including the interplay between specific economic systems (free market, statist, feudal, etc.) and Christian social obligations, but just a couple of thoughts --

It is important to note that the Church does not, in fact, speak of giving a flat one-tenth in support of the Church (tithe), but says, instead, help support the material needs of the institutional Church (CCC 2043) and engage in various corporal acts of mercy, demonstrating charity to the poor, etc. in various ways. In addition, there are the Great Commandments -- love God and love one another. Essentially, that means that we should put all of our resources at His disposal, financial as well as non-financial.

Having a tithe (ten percent) rule does have the benefit of prompting folks to give more if they haven't met the "quota," but it has the very detrimental effect of limiting giving, that is, in real life practical terms, it has the effect of people saying, "hey, I've given my share, I don't need to give anymore." So, maybe that is the reason, maybe it is for some other reason, but the Church does not specify a certain set percentage. Instead, as with God, the Church rightly expects that you devote the entirety of your life, of your being, to God and neighbor.

Now, as for the precept of support of the Church, in a small community, it may very well be that those needs add up to ten percent of parishioners' income. But in a large community, those needs may amount to only two percent. That is, if a parish and diocese need $100,000 a year to operate, the individuals in a small community will need to give a greater percentage to reach that level, whereas those in a large community, because of the added numbers, will require a lower percentage to reach that level. The same principles apply for Catholic schools, hospitals, and various charitable programs.

But we should not make the enormous mistake of thinking that, if we do not write a check or hand over cash to the Church or some charitable organization or even the government in taxation that we are not giving to others or that we are not putting all of our resources at God's disposal.

Consider if we were to pay a homeless guy $20 to rake leaves in our yard rather than simply hand him 20 bucks. In the one case, we are giving him a job, in the other case, we are giving him a hand-out. Either way, it is a corporal act of mercy, it is expressing charity (love of neighbor) and a "preferential option for the poor." And yet, on paper anyway, it might look like that we are not helping the poor by having him work rather than just giving him the cash.

But let's expand on that a bit. Suppose that, instead of paying him $20 to rake leaves, or simply handing him $20, we spend that money on cheeseburgers at McDonalds. Does that help the poor, or is that being selfish?

If we look at the bigger economic picture, it cannot be denied that it is helping the poor. Why? Because McDonalds needs employees to make those cheeseburgers and to sell them to us. Accordingly, it takes those $20 and hires that homeless guy. He now has a job and is on his way out of poverty. But if we don't buy those cheeseburgers, out of some sense that we do not want to be selfish, then the homeless guy is out of a job because we never gave McDonalds the money to hire him.

Let's go even bigger -- super rich fat cats buying and flying on corporate jets. Due to bad publicity, a lot of companies are cutting down on corporate jets. Consequently, the businesses that build and sell and maintain those jets are losing money, causing them to lay people off. What looked to be the selfish thing was actually the more charitable thing, and what looked to be the more socially responsible is actually the more destructive.

In looking at the question of whether we are devoting all of our resources to God, or giving a sufficient percentage, whether that is one-tenth (tithe) or some other amount, it bears noting that, so long as a person does not stick his money under his mattress or bury it in the yard, so long as he spends it or invests it or sticks it in the bank, he is providing the life blood to a system which provides true charity to countless numbers of people in the form of jobs. And when that money does not move through the economy, when people hang on to it, then people lose jobs, as we are seeing happening in the economy today.

We do not live in a feudal system, where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few nobles, as in the time and place when many of the Church's teachings on "social justice" were developed. We in America have historically had, instead, a free market system (even though we are moving increasingly to a statist system).

Now, a "free" market, to be truly free, is not and cannot be wholly unconstrained. A free market does not mean robber barons and greedy monopolies. Authentic freedom is necessarily tied to truth and the good. But a "free" market also means the ability to make decisions about where and when to spend money or invest or appropriate capital. When the various actors in the marketplace are free to do that, knowing best themselves what is best for their business or individual situation, then jobs are created, homes are built, people are fed, people are clothed -- the poor are made not poor. That is not being selfish, that is not greedy self-interest, that is actually helping our neighbor.

But when some outsider comes in and dictates how and where and when that money is spent, as in the case of government (like in a statist system), or in the case of an erroneous conception of free market economics or in an erroneous concept of "economic justice," then the system, being less free, breaks down. People lose jobs or are not hired in the first place. Homes are not built, people are not fed or clothed. The poor remain poor and those who are not poor become poor. To simply give them alms at that point -- which some would see as the only manner of charity -- would not be selfless charity (love) at all, it would be an act of violence and oppression. True charity, true acts of mercy, true love of neighbor means freely choosing how and where and when to act, including spending money, so as to best provide jobs, food, clothes, shelter for those who have none.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that, if we do not give money to some "charitable organization," be it the Church or otherwise, or if we do not pay ever-increasing amounts of taxes to the government, which then redistributes it in welfare payments, that we are not helping the poor, that we are not loving our neighbor.

To be sure, there is some minimal level of funding that the Church, charities, government, etc. need to operate and provide legitimate necessary services. And we absolutely have an obligation to pay that to them, whether it is one-tenth (tithe) or some other amount. But they are not the only providers of assistance to the poor, etc. If someone gives only two percent to the Church, that does not necessarily mean that they have not met their "tithing" or like social obligations. Spending the other eight percent on other things, or spending the other 98 percent on other things, very likely will provide enormous assistance to the would-be poor in the form of employment.

Now, to be sure, how we spend the remainder of our money, the money we do not give to the Church, is an important factor. There is an objective moral dimension to how we spend money. Spending it on strip bars and porn and drugs and abortions and things like that do not contribute to or advance our obligation to show charity toward our neighbors, much less our obligation to love God. Using our money for sinful purposes is not demonstrating love for our neighbors, even if the multi-billion-dollar sex industry does employ tens of thousands of people. But using our money for positive, non-sinful things, even if it does not appear to be directly charitable, even if it is not technically a "tithe," does in fact have a charitable effect by employing the would-be poor in honest labor, providing them with homes, food, clothes, etc.

How ever we might spend our money and apply our accumulated wealth, it should be, as in all that we do, with an eye toward loving God and loving one another. We should indeed give enough directly to the Church so as to meet the needs of the Church. If we can best meet our obligation of loving God and loving neighbor by giving ten percent or twenty percent or fifty percent to the Church, then that is what we should do. But if we can best meet our obligation of loving God and loving neighbor by giving a lesser percentage to the Church and spending the rest on other things, then that is what we should do. Even if we spend the rest of our money on cheeseburgers, so long as it is not done in a spirit of greed or materialism or gluttony or other wrong, if it is done in a spirit of loving our neighbor, even that can be a corporal act of mercy and charity toward others.

The question is: what is the best and most effective way of loving God and neighbor, what is the best and most effective way of engaging in acts of mercy and helping the poor?

That is what the question is. No longer are we bound to the Law, which sets specific rules to guide behavior. Instead, we are to be guided by the law of love and truth written in our hearts, we are to be wise and faithful stewards of the bounty entrusted to us, utilizing reason, not merely fixed rules of conduct. So long as we do that, we are accomplishing our mandate and vocation. If we can best love God and neighbor and most effectively help the poor by giving a certain amount to the Church and spending the rest on cheeseburgers, so as to provide jobs for the poor, even though it is not spent directly on them, and might (falsely) appear to some to be an act of selfishness, if that demonstrates the wisest stewardship, then that is what we should do.

(originally posted 3/23/09 as a comment at Historical Christian)

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