The Widow’s Mite

… {I propose here} to move … to the freedom of giving as an inevitable expression of our spirits in Christ and as a necessary means of our own sanctification.

We Catholics in the United States traditionally give more from an obligation to contribute to the temporal needs of our parishes than from any biblically based mandate to tithe, to donate a percentage of our means as an act of fealty to God. This prevailing Catholic attitude—and the focus here is on American Catholicism—does produce genuine and, perhaps, adequate generosity, but not the degree of donation that would allow our churches to move beyond a chronically marginal “budgeting” toward the more ample works of charity and evangelization to which we aspire as possible and right.

Yet, I do not here propose that the answer is more earnestly to inculcate the Levitical principle of tithing as an act of obedience, valid and meritorious as that is; but rather to move beyond law or precept to the freedom of giving as an inevitable expression of our spirits in Christ and as a necessary means of our own sanctification.

Years ago, folks used to complain about their pastor’s seemingly constant carping about money. But who could blame him? I grew up in the fifties in a large urban parish with a grand Gothic church, a tuition-free grammar school packed with twelve hundred kids, a three-story convent filled with nineteen nuns, and an ample rectory with five priests driving five black sedans, all run on the coinage tossed anonymously—no envelopes—into the Sunday basket. And, bingo! It is true that at each of the seven or eight Sunday morning Masses, held in both the upper and lower churches, there was always a second collection, not a “special collection” such as we have today for a particular mission or service, just an iteration of the first collection. And, at every church entrance, you paid your ten cent “seat collection” to a formidable fellow sitting at a table with neat and ready stacks of change for a quarter or a dollar. Still, when I look back, I am both edified and mystified that a massive complex occupying well nigh an entire city block could operate on pocket change.

But, times have changed. In the fifties, three-quarters of American Catholics attended Mass every Sunday; today no more than 45 percent do. 1  Yet, Catholic parishes now maintain operational centers, and other facilities, with paid employees. Parish schools, too, are now staffed predominantly by salaried laypersons, rather than by religious with vows of poverty, and so must charge substantial tuitions. Pastors, and the councils who advise them, therefore, are pressed now to consider how they might more effectively represent parish financial affairs and appeal for increased giving—without carping.

Typically these days, the pastor of a church—but as likely the chair of a finance committee—will use the pulpit, on a given Sunday around the end of the fiscal year, to provide a summary of parish income and expenses, highlight certain resource developments and requirements, invoke the diocesan rubric for charitable giving—such as the familiar “time, talent, treasure” theme—and thank the parishioners for their generosity during the past year. This overview will ordinarily be reinforced with a flier or pamphlet, followed up by an invitation to the congregation to thoughtfully reassess their financial situation, and to reconsider their weekly contribution, with reference, perhaps, to some statistics on household spending to put things in perspective. There may even be an immediate opportunity to complete a new donation pledge card, distributed by the ushers. If the budget is in deficit, or there is a particularly critical need to be met (like repaving a crumbling parking lot) there might be a more urgent plea for increased or dedicated giving. Then, there are the periodic capital campaigns, or fund drives, most parishes now conduct.

Practicing Catholics, by and large now, uncomplainingly expect this annual ritual as right and necessary, and do modestly respond; for their contributions have been observed as slightly on the rise recently, despite very difficult times in the Church. It is not possible, however, to state with absolute authority and precision the particulars of Catholic giving because the American bishops do not publish any official, comprehensive, or definitive data. The statistics that are available are developed by various independent researchers who draw upon somewhat spotty reports from various religious denominations.

The approximate nature of the data, notwithstanding, is a widely accepted understanding that the average rate of donation by Catholics to their parishes has, for decades, not risen above 1.2 percent of income after taxes—less than half of what Protestants give. Although it is not necessary for present purposes to parse these figures, some contextualizing is in order here. For example, some researchers suggest that larger congregations, such as most Catholic parishes, typically give proportionally less than smaller church communities; and that churches with tuition supported schools, again predominantly Catholic, ordinarily receive less in the basket. 2  It should be noted, too, that the national average of giving as a percentage of net income, even for fundamentalist Christians, falls well below the biblically dictated 10 percent tithe. For example, one report indicates that only 24 percent of Evangelicals, and 11 percent of Pentecostals, who tend to profess more explicit adherence to biblical standards, observe the Mosaic tithe in support of their churches. 3

It remains, however, that Catholics, by any standard, measurement, or comparison, give an inordinately small portion of their disposable income to their parishes. And, to repeat, the approach described above, and commonly taken by American parishes and dioceses in recent times to stimulate greater generosity, while earnest and not without purpose, has not significantly increased Catholic parish support.

Might Catholics be better persuaded to give more devotedly, more beneficently to their churches?

Certainly, a zealous evangelization of unchurched and lapsed Catholics would increase Mass attendance and, thereby, improve parish revenues while saving souls, which should, of course, be primary to the mission of any parish. Realistically, however, it is the core of weekly churchgoers, who routinely drop their envelopes or loose money into the collection plate, who need to be motivated to share a greater portion of their means, and not just for the support of their local parishes but, through their parishes, for the larger Catholic community and its outreach.

I would, therefore, propose that if there is to be an axial change in Catholic giving, we who attend Mass every Sunday must embrace an understanding of giving fundamentally different from the prevailing one. We must be reminded, or helped to see, that we give, not only because our parishes need us to give, which they do; or even that God commands us to give, which he does; but because we need to give to our parishes. We must be moved to give more freely for our own spiritual growth and beatitude, in response to God’s call to holiness.

In his sublime Sermon on the Mount, Jesus saliently establishes charitable giving as essential to the life of faith when he directs that we should give alms, pray, and fast humbly and without show—all three together as a matter of course—seeking only the Father’s approval. In effect, Christ speaks of prayer, fasting, and giving as ascetically integral, as three pillars of the spiritual life, as the three basic devotions by which we relate to and are graced by the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6:1-18).

This characterization of charitable giving as a necessary spiritual discipline and blessing is poignantly dramatized. When Jesus observes the impoverished widow depositing her “two small coins,” worth practically nothing, into the well-larded Temple treasury, he marvels at her radical generosity:

Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth; but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood (Mk 12:43-44).

I believe that Christ is drawing attention, not just to the woman’s material generosity, remarkable as it is, but to her consummate self-giving. The Temple did not need her meager contribution. She needed to make it both for her own sanctification, and as an expression of her devotion to, and love of, the God for whom the Temple existed. Her donation, exceeding, transcending, the rule of tithe, was an act of faith, of homage and worship, an emblem of the Christian life of surrender.

Just as this poor widow, we, too, must donate from our hearts and with greater abandon, with trust, if we are to be right with the Father, fully alive in Christ, holy in his Spirit—and happy. We, as Catholics, must better appreciate that offering to God a proper portion of our means is essential to our spiritual health, and as indispensable to our relationship with him, and to our peace and joy, as prayer and fasting.

Besides, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully … for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:6-7). As we say, you cannot outdo God in generosity. Does anyone think the penniless widow went home and starved?

  1. Lydia Saad of the Gallup Poll, “Churchgoing Among U.S. Catholics Slides to Tie Protestants,” http://www.gallup.com/poll/117382/church-going-among-catholics-slides-tie-protestants.aspx (April 9, 2007, accessed August 24, 2011).
  2. The comparative figures on Catholic church giving cited herein were taken from John and Sylvia Ronsvale, “An Exploration of Roman Catholic Giving Patterns,” The State of Church Giving through 1993 (Champaign, Illinois: Empty Tomb, Inc., 1995), http://www.emptytomb.org/cathgiv.html (accessed August 24, 2011).
  3. The Barna Group, “New Study Shows Trends in Tithing and Donating,” http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/18-congregations/41-new-study-shows-trends-in-tithing-and-donating (April 14, 2008, accessed August 24, 2011).
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avatar About Dr. Alfred Hanley

Dr. Alfred Hanley retired in 2009 as professor of English and chair of Humanities and Science at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hart Crane’s Holy Vision: White Buildings (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1981), as well as The Beast With Seven Heads: An Improbably Sleuth Mystery (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2011).

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