I’m deep in debt and working diligently to eliminate it. I’ve received conflicting advice on how much I should give to charity while trying to pay off what I owe. What do you say?
The conflicting advice is probably due to misunderstandings regarding tithing and Catholic teaching. On the one hand, some people think that tithing (giving 10%) is an obligation of our faith. On the other hand, many people think that tithing is not a Catholic notion or concept at all.
I think a better way of expressing it is that the current law of the Church (Code of Canon Law, Canon 222) does not specify a particular amount we are to give. Rather, it expresses a general obligation to support the Church and her works.
This does not mean that tithing isn’t part of Catholic teaching.
While tithing is not a doctrine of the Church, it is a respected “lower case” tradition. After all, the Old Testament is part of Catholic teaching.
Admittedly, the tithe was part of Mosaic Law and is not an obligation under the New Law. Yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, the tithe in some manner flows from natural law. He said the Church could change the amount from time to time — and today her guidance is that the amount we are called to give is voluntary.
We live in a consumer society. Giving is often an afterthought. As Catholics we need to follow the principle of first fruits: giving from our first and best. After all, the reason we give is to grow in love of God and neighbor. That’s why our giving needs to be sacrificial.
Sacrifice is the essence of love. American Catholics give only about 1% of their income for charitable purposes; that says something about our priorities. The tithe is an important guideline that can help us set more balanced and godly priorities.
Obviously, when someone has severe debt, there will be a number of issues in play. Your approach should focus on aggressively paying down your debts without forgetting the call to be generous to a sacrificial level.
Take stock of the resources you have available and develop a spending plan that eliminates your unproductive debt in a reasonable time frame — no more than three to five years. Be willing to make temporary reductions in nonessential spending.
Consider additional ideas that can accelerate your debt elimination. Do you have any major assets that can be sold? Selling a car that has a hefty loan, for example, and buying a less expensive one that meets your needs is a great way to accelerate your debt-reduction plan.
What about taking a temporary second job and applying most of the additional income to debt reduction?
At the same time, continue to recognize God’s gifts by being generous to a sacrificial level — even if that means all you can give is 1% of your income until your debts are better under control. Done with love, that’s a gift the Lord will honor.
God love you.
Phil Lenahan is online at