A reader e-mailed me and asked, “What would you say to a Catholic who struggles with giving money to the Church for fear of where it will go and how it will be spent?” This is a question that a lot of Catholics find themselves asking. There are plenty of stories about Church money having been used on things that seem stupid, or even sinful. I’m sure everyone reading this can point to pet issues that get their blood up: if there’s one thing that seems to unite us as American Catholics, it’s a collective disdain for the idea of wasted tithe money.
So it really is a very good question. In one sense, it’s appropriate to be wise about where we’re donating, and what we’re supporting. But when we tithe, we’re turning money over to God, in recognition that but for Him, we wouldn’t have that (or any) blessing. In other words, we’re giving to God what is God’s, as Jesus instructs us to do in Mark 12:17. Later in Mark 12, I think we get the closest thing Jesus gives to an answer to this question. From Mark 12:38-44,
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
The other concern I have is this. I think we should be extremely conscious that we don’t politicize the tithe, by releasing the money we owe to God only if our demands are met. If you give, but with a bunch of strings attached, there’s a sense in which you’re not really giving. You’re trying to use the tithe money as if it’s yours. And the point is: it isn’t. It’s God’s. Everything you own is His. That’s the broader issue here. We naturally want to control everything: it’s our fallen nature. We’re convinced that if only we were in charge, things wouldn’t go badly. That’s prideful nonsense. The widow had the right idea. She didn’t try to control everything: she just offered up to God everything she had, and He blessed her for it. So on a level deeper than dollars and cents, this is a struggle between pride and humility.
Now, having said all of that, the Church offers opportunities to donate to specific causes. People are often encouraged to give based on the results that specific programs accomplish: everything from Peter’s Pence to diocesan appeals to parish fundraisers. So I don’t think it’s inappropriate to donate wisely: to tithe in a way that you feel best helps the Body of Christ. With the right spiritual disposition, this seems like it can even be a participation in the good of the Church: you’re investing (financially and spiritually) in a specific ministry out of love.
These are questions that may have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But one thing I know is this: God never condemns anyone in Scripture for tithing, and Mark 12 makes it pretty clear that this is the case even if you know that some of the money may be wasted.