Tithing and Excommunication

Q: I am a graduate theology student, and in class we covered the reforms of the Council of Trent. I came across this passage about tithing from Chapter 12 of the Decree on Reformation of Session 25: “The holy synod therefore enjoins on all, of what rank and condition soever they be, to whom the payment of tithes belongs, that they henceforth pay in full the tithes, to which they are bound in law, to the cathedral church, or to what other churches… they are lawfully due. And they who either withhold them, or hinder them [from being paid], shall be excommunicated…”

As a young graduate student, my income is very limited and my giving to the Church has been small. I have only given to a parish occasionally, and from the small amounts of cash in my wallet. In light of the text from Trent above, has my lack of giving to a parish caused me to be excommunicated?  If so, does this discipline still apply in light of the current code of canon law saying nothing of the sort? Any help would be much appreciated! –Anthony

A: There are actually three different aspects of Anthony’s question that are worth discussing. There is of course the primary issue of giving financial support to one’s parish church; but in addition to that, it might be helpful to take a look at how centuries-old laws fit—or don’t—into canon law today.  And finally, it’s worth looking at the whole issue of being excommunicated without realizing it.

The concept of tithing, or giving 10% of one’s wealth, is of pre-Christian origin, and in fact a reference to it may be found in the Book of Genesis:

Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who delivered your foes into your hand.”  Then Abram gave him a tenth [i.e., a tithe] of everything (Gen. 14:18-20).

But as we saw recently in “What Does the Church Say About Usury?” just because the Church promulgated a law in centuries past, doesn’t mean it’s still in effect.  Canon 6.1 states right at the beginning of the current Code of Canon Law that among other things, the previous (1917) code and other laws which are contrary to the new code were abrogated once the new code took effect in late 1983.  Canons from the Council of Trent are thus of great historical interest, but they do not constitute current law!

The current code does indeed address the issue of supporting the Church, and its wording is very different from that of the 16th-century Council of Trent: Canon 222 asserts that the Christian faithful are obliged to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it that which is necessary for divine worship, for works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the worthy support of its ministers.  Let’s take this canon apart and look at its various components.

First of all, the code freely acknowledges that the Church needs material goods in order to function. In order to celebrate Mass, for instance, it needs gold or gilded vessels, suitable priestly vestments, candles, bread and wine—none of which is free.  The Church also dispenses charitable aid to the needy, which obviously doesn’t grow on trees either.  Lastly, the canon specifically notes that its ministers deserve suitable financial support, a point reiterated later in canon 281.1.  All of this naturally requires money.

But note that canon 222 says absolutely nothing about tithing, much less does it attach the penalty of excommunication to anyone who fails to tithe. In fact, the current law provides no numerical figures or calculations at all.  For that matter, a close look at the Latin wording will show that it doesn’t actually require the faithful to give money!  The terminology indicates that Catholics are to assist the Church, to come to its help as needed—and there are many different, genuine ways to do this, that don’t necessarily involve one’s wallet.

Anthony’s situation is a case in point. A student who has little or no income cannot reasonably be expected to give the Church money which he doesn’t have.  Directly pertinent here is a basic legal principle originating in ancient Roman law, which was embraced by the Church long ago: nemo ad impossibile obligari potest, nobody can be obliged to do the impossible.  To give an obvious example of how this principle applies, the Church requires us to attend Sunday Mass (c. 1246.1)—but it cannot oblige someone to do this if he is in a coma, or hiding in a fox-hole during a military battle!  Similarly, a person who is unemployed, or truly living in poverty, cannot reasonably be required to donate money to his parish, and so he cannot be penalized for failing to do so.

So does this mean that with regard to supporting our parish, we’re off the hook if we don’t have a steady job, or an income that is “sufficient” by our own estimation? Not so fast.  Since the canon doesn’t specify that our support must be financial in nature, it follows that we can do other things for the Church which don’t directly involve money.  We can, for example, volunteer our time/professional expertise to our parish: an accountant or real-estate agent can perhaps give advice that is itself very valuable, or we can teach catechism classes, or mow the lawn.  Maybe a parishioner who is a dry-cleaner or florist can regularly clean the vestments or provide flowers for the altar without charge.  Perhaps even more importantly, those who have no money or skills whatsoever can still pray regularly for the parish priest, for the youth of the parish, and for homebound parishioners.  The point is, every parishioner can do something, and in this manner everyone contributes to the parish in some way.  This is certainly not meant to discourage direct financial support, which is crucial to the survival of a typical parish, and is probably within the means of most of us; but it’s important to realize that there are important, non-monetary ways to contribute too.

There’s one final aspect of Anthony’s question that must be addressed: the notion that a Catholic could be excommunicated without realizing it. This issue was discussed in detail back in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” but in brief, it is simply impossible for any Catholic to be excommunicated without being aware of it.  Canon 1323 n. 2 is unequivocal on this point: if a person commits a crime without knowing that it is punishable by excommunication, he is not excommunicated.  It’s as simple as that!  In this particular case, the issue is moot anyway, since (as mentioned above) there is no penalty in the law today for failing to tithe to one’s parish–but even if there were such a law in the current code, no Catholic could incur the penalty if he honestly knew nothing about it.

So what can we conclude from all this? First of all, the canons of the Council of Trent are, as a rule, no longer binding, since they have been replaced by current laws which are in force today.  Secondly, tithing may have been required of Catholics in generations gone by, but no such obligation exists today; in fact, those who have no (or very little) money are not specifically required to give money to their parish.  But the current law is written broadly enough to indicate that if financial support is impossible, the Catholic faithful should support their parish in other ways.  And lastly, if a Catholic encounters a church law, the violation of which is punishable by excommunication, he needn’t worry that he may have incurred that penalty in the past without knowing it.  The Church wants its laws to be adhered to, but it does not expect us to do more than is in our power—and so the Church certainly will not punish us for failing to do the impossible.

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