The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So if you’re not in the habit of incorporating almsgiving into your budget, Lent is the ideal time to start.
But if you ask an American Catholic for their favorite Bible verse on charitable giving, and they may very well answer: “God helps those who help themselves.”
The problem is, of course, that’s not from the Bible. What the Bible and the Catholic Church do have to say on the topic could probably be summed up like this: We are most like God when we help each other.
It’s not always what we want to do! But we are truly obligated to help each other. It’s not optional, and if we learn to become cheerful and generous givers, we can sanctify our lives.
What does the Church actually teach about almsgiving? How much do we have to give, and to whom, and why?
Some Catholics say they have been they are obligated not only to give money, but to tithe, or donate ten percent of their gross income, to charity. While there is no reason not to do this if it makes sense for your budget, it’s not obligatory. The Old Testament Jews under Moses were required to tithe, and some Christian denominations ask it from their congregations, but Catholic Churches do not (and never have).
Instead, in Corinthians, St. Paul asks the first Christians to donate “whatever one can afford” (1 Cor 16:2). This is our model. It is not based on a specific number, but on individual circumstances –– and that means internal circumstances, not just financial ones. Like so many commands of God, it requires us to do some honest soul-searching, which is often harder than simply following a rule. Within families, charitable giving is something that requires open and meaningful conversations between spouses, and may even include children who are learning from a young age to model their parents’ behaviors.
Sometimes spouses have a hard time agreeing about what is reasonable to give, especially if they come from differing financial backgrounds, and if one spouse earns more money than the other. It might be easier to come to an agreement if you both recognize that charitable giving can take
many forms. Some people prefer to focus on the needy people physically closest to them; others think it makes more sense to support people who are farther away, but whose poverty is more dire. Some people like to keep their charity personal and direct; others feel more comfortable supporting established organizations with proven track records who can manage funds and decide how best to spend them. There is nothing wrong with choosing a style of giving that meshes well with your worldview, as long as giving does have a place in that worldview.
Just as the Church does not tell us how much to give, it doesn’t tell us how to give. It just encourages us to be generous, and to see charity as a natural part of our relationships with each other. Just as we contribute to the upkeep of the church because it is our church, we should willingly support each other materially because we are all part of the same human family.
Sometimes being part of that family means acknowledging that our place is on the receiving end, temporarily or permanently. Learning to accept help graciously — and signaling to the world that you still deserve to be treated with dignity — is just as much a spiritual service as giving alms is. It can be an uncomfortable role, but it is a vital one.
Here is the part that many people miss, when they want to understand how Catholics view almsgiving. It’s about the poor who receive the money, of course, and it’s about the money itself; but it’s also about the person giving it, and it’s about what affect it has on the giver.
The angel Raphael tells Tobit:
“Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with
wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold,
for almsgiving saves from death, and purges all sin. Those
who give alms will enjoy a full life.” (Tb 12: 8-9)
How so? We may think of money as something good that we ought to cling to, and that we reluctantly share because we are obligated to; but our faith teaches us to think of excessive wealth as something dangerous that can harm us. It tells us that we’re doing ourselves a favor when we divest ourselves of our excess, if not more than that. Charity is good for the poor person who’s given a chance at feeling a full belly and a warm home. But it’s also good for the giver, who’s given a chance at reaching heaven unencumbered by the weight of material goods.
The best possible way to give is to consider our wealth a burden, and to treat the recipient not only with respect and dignity, but with gratitude, because they are helping relieve us of a potential spiritual impediment. It’s not easy. But it’s hard to deny that this is how the Gospels teach us to see money and the poor.
Even when we’re resolved to be generous, it’s not always easy to figure out the best possible way to disburse our funds. Sometimes charities we thought were worthwhile turn out to be corrupt or inefficient. Sometimes we donate more money than we can comfortably afford, and are frustrated to see it used on what looks like frivolous or foolish expenses. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of what happens to our money. Sometimes we get so obsessed with finding a recipient who doesn’t violate any of our standards that we find ourselves unable to find anyone at all who qualifies. If we hit a point of paralysis like this, it’s probably a sign that we’ve allowed money to take on too much significance, and we should step back and let the Holy Spirit take over. It’s all right to switch things up and find a new outlet; or we can simply surrender. Write a check, kiss it up to God, and move on with our lives. Remember: Even if the money itself gets wasted, the generosity never is. There is no such thing as a wasted act of love; and something done out of love, either for neighbor or for God, is worth more than the hugest impersonal donation in the world.
Practice the phrase “it’s just money,” and say it until you mean it. And that’s how you give like a Catholic.
A version of this column was originally published in the March/April 2022 volume of Parable magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska