Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Counting to One-Tenth

June has traditionally been the month for the much anticipated tax refund, courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service. But with more people e-filing, plus the IRS electronically depositing 79 million refunds a year, June has lost its privileged status with the American taxpayer. That windfall, large or small, can’t come fast enough. No doubt, if you’re like most taxpayers, it was earmarked for spending months ago. Easy come, easy go.

Same thing with performance bonuses. Last year a member of the Holy Family Institute, one of the lay institutes of the Pauline Family, told me that he and his wife, Jessica, had intended to give a sizeable donation toward the production of the documentary on our founder, Blessed James Alberione. With their eighth child on the way, though, they were looking forward to Michael’s annual oil gush for lots of little reasons, and a donation project seemed less compelling than the bills. That May the spurt came with a chuckle. He wrote: 
“In the southern U.S. the notion of tithing among Christians is a lot more prevalent. One of the supervisors who works for me at our plant mentioned in a superstitious way that so-and-so had bad luck, because they had not tithed against their bonus (the end of April is the time of year when our company pays performance bonuses), and you can understand how a person might hesitate when they have a large chunk of cash like that all at once.

“Now I am not superstitious; however, in the last week we lost our dishwasher, my garage door went off its rails, two tires have begun to go flat on my car, and I caught a virus that gave me a four-day headache. Needless to say, I took these as reminders from Blessed Alberione that I am blessed to have the wherewithal to deal with this series of minor crises and get to the business of helping make known the work of Father Alberione.”
To date he and his generous wife have contributed $2,500 to the film project.

In their 2008 book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, the sociologist-authors cite one alarming statistic that American Christians donate less than one percent of their annual earnings to charity. Only ten percent of them tithe. They add that twenty percent of U.S. Christians overall and twenty-eight percent of Catholics give nothing.

Lack of generosity is not always the culprit, though with luxury spending on the rise, a case could well be made for adjusting our priorities. Part of the problem stems from the demands of our hectic lives, in which the important takes a back seat to the urgent. Too often credit card debt, car payments, mortgages, and student loans siphon off what’s needed for worthy causes. Many of us could use a crash course on managing finances across the board, so that charitable giving enjoys its rightful place in the budget.

Based on the example of Christ the Master, Christian charity has become iconic, and so, certainly, Christian motives for openhandedness and self-service embody unique characteristics. The tradition of every great religion, however, appeals for liberality among believers. In Judaism everyone, wealthy or not, was obliged to give toward the support of the resident foreigner, orphan, widow, Levite (the priest, who had no ancestral heritage to fall back on), and generally speaking, the poor. See Dt. 14:22-29 for particulars on tithing. Israel’s communal nature called for this sense of belonging and responsibility.

Even today, Jewish congregations routinely require tithes of their members or a percentage in proportion to income. A few years ago, I attended a fundraising lecture at the historic Sherith Israel Synagogue in San Francisco. It cost me a paltry $10 for a fabulous explanation of the opalescent Beaux Arts windows. In chatting later with a staffer, I learned how the synagogue’s membership director helps members work out their financial commitment to the congregation. Oh, yes, you have to pay to belong! It was reassuring to hear, though, that no one is ever refused membership for financial reasons.

In Buddhism, giving, and almsgiving in particular, is called dāna. Religious Buddhism, as well as various non-religious Buddhist traditions and cultural or geographic conditions, have given rise to different applications of this principle, but almsgiving remains an important part of the eightfold path.

Almsgiving, or zakat, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Percentages are assigned for contributions in the form of money and produce. Alms benefit those who have no recourse to other means to meet their needs and are the responsibility of the wealthy.

Tithing is not unique to Judaism or Christianity. In antiquity, even many civil societies required a ten percent payment on harvests and revenue from production or sales—a primitive income tax schedule. Religious groups adopted the practice and adapted it for spiritual purposes.

While the New Testament shows no evidence of a requirement to tithe, it’s adamant in its call for generosity and planned giving (1Cor. 16:1ff.). St. Paul invoked his Jewish heritage to remind the Corinthians that gratitude necessitated some return on his investment with them: “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (1Cor. 9:11). He alludes to Israel’s practice of apportioning “those who serve at the altar [a] share in what is sacrificed on the altar” and concludes: “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (9:13, 14).

Church tradition, teaching, and law throughout the centuries mandated not only almsgiving for the poor but tithing especially to support the clergy. The old Catholic Encyclopedia reported that, at the time of publication (1912), Catholic clergy did not generally receive tithes in English-speaking countries and so, relied on other sources for their support and the maintenance of property. I’m not sure if that still stands in all Anglophone countries. In the U.S. certainly, salaries and stipends account for this support. Sunday collections and capital campaigns pay for maintenance and development.

What about support for other non-parochial public charities that have no access to parish funding? There exists a medley of structures and processes that creatively meet the needs of many. One of these is donor-advised funds. Typically, such a fund enables a donor to give to a cause by initially setting up a fund, then allowing other donors to contribute to it to help it grow. Some allow charities to dip into the fund periodically without running through the stash all at once. In this way, immediate needs are met, while future needs are provided for.

I recently read of a couple, Nancy and Mike Meyer from the diocese of Phoenix, who established such a fund with a local Catholic foundation, pledging ten percent of their annual income to it. Such tithing is not a requirement in donor-advised funds, but it does make for a simplified tax return!

In 2011 another couple, who love our sisters and the mission of our congregation, worked with the National Catholic Community Foundation (NCCF) to establish the donor-advised Daughters of St. Paul Fund. The NCCF was founded in 1997 by twenty religious orders and organizations in concert with the prominent Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities. (John J. Raskob was the architect for the Empire State Building in New York City; his creative wife, Helena, was as generous as her husband.) The Daughters of St. Paul Fund exists to support the life and evangelizing mission of our community as it shares the Gospel of Christ in and through the media, arguably the most influential means of shaping our world today.

Think of the NCCF as an online “donation mall”: Almost 350 Catholic ministries and charities with funds managed by the NCCF are described and “displayed.” So are ways to give. To learn how you can donate, call 1-800-757-2998, or e-mail

However you choose to give to the Daughters, whether for a particular project or through a donor-advised fund, whether once or regularly, you and yours are remembered in a monthly Mass offered in our Boston chapel, as well as in the prayers of us all throughout the world. May God make us worthy of your goodness to us!

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