An inquirer recently approached Catholic Answers with a difficult personal question. Her husband had lost his job, and she wanted to know if it was okay to cut down on charitable donations until they were back on their feet. The apologist who answered her question assured her that doing so was morally licit, and said, “If you are facing difficult times financially, it is most appropriate to cut back on other things (including charity) to ensure the stability of your family.”
This answer is certainly correct. By their very nature, though, quick questions require a brief response to an immediate need. It is not possible to cover all aspects to such questions in the Q&A format. The question got me thinking, then, about the deeper issue: what are our responsibilities to other people when we ourselves are facing difficult circumstances?
A tithe, which refers to a tenth of a man’s holdings, was an Old Testament obligation imposed by God upon the people of Israel, in part as a means of supporting the Levites who served first in the tabernacle and then in the temple, and did not have a share of the land from which to draw income (Num. 18:21). In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles relied upon the support of their followers to fund Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 8:3). Later, the apostles relied on the offerings from the early Christian communities for their own support (Acts 2:44–45) and established deacons to manage charitable distributions to the needy (Acts 6:1–7).
In later centuries, some of the councils, such as the Fourth Lateran Council, mentioned tithes, but in the more general sense of necessary support for the Church and not in the strict sense of requiring a tenth of one’s wealth. Eventually, the Christian obligation of support for the Church, not a strict tithe, was clarified and recognized as a precept of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines this precept this way:
The fifth precept (“You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability (CCC 2043).
Although the Church does not require a strict tithe, and teaches that the obligation of support for the Church is dependent on personal ability, we can’t therefore say that we are only required to give when we feel comfortable about giving. The Church never says that we only have to give if it doesn’t hurt us to do so. In fact, the New Testament gives every indication that we should give even when it is a burden.
When Jesus was preaching in the temple, he drew his disciples’ attention to the visitors who were dropping off their contributions. Those who were rich were giving significant contributions, but Jesus singled out a woman who gave only two small coins:
And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:3–4).
Jesus’ favor was never dependent on how much a person gave, but sometimes a superabundance of generosity, over and above what was required, brought a superabundance of grace. When Jesus saw the tax collector Zacchaeus sitting in a tree so that he could see Jesus pass by, he called him down and said that he would eat at Zacchaeus’s house that day.
When the crowd murmured at this, Zacchaeus announced that not only would he return anything he had unjustly collected, but he would pay four times the amounts obtained by fraud and give half of his own holdings to the poor on top of that. It was in response to this offer that Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).
Jesus himself provided the model for self-sacrificial giving. As God, he could simply have willed our salvation at no cost to himself. He could have willed to be born to a position of power and used his influence to spread his teachings. Instead he chose to be born in a stable, to an oppressed people in an occupied territory.
All that said, it is indeed true that we are not required to give money we don’t have. So, what’s the solution?
There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part there are very few people who truly have nothing they can give. We may not have money, but we may have time or skills. Or perhaps we have a surplus of possessions from more prosperous times that we can pass on to others. As St. Basil observed:
The bread you store up belongs to the hungry; the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold that you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.
Very few Catholics are blessed to have vast fortunes to give away, as did St. Katharine Drexel. But all of us have something we can give. St. Martin of Tours cut his cloak in half and gave half of it to a beggar; that night he had a dream of Christ wearing his half-cloak. St. Dominic sold off his books to raise money for the poor. Mother Teresa advised that if you cannot feed a hundred people, then feed just one.
Giving when it hurts is not easy, but we have the assurance that when we do the effects of our giving are greater than we could have ever imagined. That’s because when we give whatever we have to whoever is in need, we can be certain that we are also giving to Christ himself (Matt. 25:31–40).