In Christian usage, the tenth or other part of a person's income that was required by law (ecclesiastical, civil, or both) to be paid to the Church for the maintenance of its institutions, the support of its ministers, the promotion of its works, and the relief of the poor.
In the Bible. The custom of giving a certain percentage of the harvest annually to the deity or the king was quite widespread in antiquity. Among some peoples, tithes were also levied on the spoils of war (Gn 14.16–20), commercial profits, and other revenues.
Israelite laws on the giving of a tithe (Heb. ma‘śēr, tenth part) are usually found in the context of various types of offerings to be made to Yahweh. Thus the tithe was basically a religious offering rather than a tax as such, although in 1 Sm 8.15, 17 a warning is given that the king will levy a tithe on grain, vineyards, and cattle—a practice of neighboring kingdoms that is attested by ugarit texts.
The Biblical origins of the tithe are obscure, and the lack of uniformity in the laws makes it virtually impossible to trace its evolution with accuracy. Two of the oldest laws are silent (Ex 23.19; 34.26), but the custom must have been in use even before the Deuteronomic Code of the eighth century b.c., for this was primarily a reform of existing laws and customs. In the Deuteronomic Code the tithe is limited to grain, wine, and oil (Dt 12.6, 11, 17; 14.22). These texts more or less equate the tithe with other ritual offerings and sacrifices. At the designated sanctuary a joyful sacred banquet was prepared from these gifts and shared with the Levite of the suppressed local sanctuaries (12.18–19). However, if the distance was too great, tithes could be sold locally and the money used to purchase banquet supplies at the central sanctuary (14.24–27). Every three years the tithes were given directly to the local levites as additional compensation (14.28–29). Even then the tithes retained their sacred character, for the worshiper was to appear at the sanctuary and make the declaration prescribed in Dt 26.12–15.
The Priestly Code of postexilic times extends the tithe to the fruit of trees, herds, and flocks, but permits it to be redeemed (Lv 27.30–32; (see also 2 Chr 31.5–6). However, only a tithe of grain, wine, and oil is mentioned in Neh 10.39; 13.12. In Nm 18.21–32 the tithe becomes a sort of tax for the benefit of the Levites, but they, in turn, must give to the priests a tithe of the tithes (v. 26; see also Neh 10.38; 12.44), that is to be regarded as an offering of first fruits to Yahweh (Nm 18.27–29). Nehemiah 10.38–39 permits the Levites themselves, under the supervision of a priest, to collect the tithes. Despite the Chronicler's idealistic picture (2 Chr 31.5–6, 12), the people did not always bring in full tithes (Mal 3.7–10; Neh 13.10–14; Sir 35.8). The tithe continued to be paid (Jdt 11.3; 1 Mc 3.49), but later interpretation of the laws led to a triple tithe (Tb 1.6–8). The scrupulosity of the Pharisees in paying tithes (Mt 23.23; Lk 11.42) often led to vain boasting (Lk 18.12). No law of tithing is found in the New Testament, although the principle of Church support is laid down in Mt 10.10 (see also Lk 10.7) and echoed in 1 Cor 9.13–14.
In the Early Church. The early Church had no tithing system. The tithes of the Old Testament were regarded as abrogated by the law of Christ. It was not that the need to support the Church did not exist or was not recognized, but rather that other means appeared to suffice. Irenaeus and Origen spoke rather disparagingly of the institution of tithes as though there was something mean in it and unworthy of the generosity of Christians. As the Church expanded, however, and its material needs grew more numerous and complex, it became necessary to adopt a definite rule to which people could he held either by a sense of moral obligation or by a precept of positive law. The tithing of the Old Law provided an obvious model, and it began to be taught—more commonly in the West, however, than in the East—that the faithful should give tithes of their income.
When this view began to get sufficient support, it found legislative expression. The Council of Mâcon in 585 ordered payment of tithes and threatened excommunication to those who refused to comply. Other local councils made similar enactments, but their repetition and the warnings of penalties to be imposed upon delinquents suggest that the tithes were paid with some irregularity and reluctance. One of the capitularies of Charlemagne toward the end of the eighth century made the payment of tithes obligatory under civil law. In earlier practice, tithes were paid simply of the fruits of the earth (praedial tithes), but toward the 13th century they were extended to certain other kinds of profits and wages, and precise rules were elaborated for the determination of what was tithable and what was not, the conditions of exemption, etc. The Council of Trent declared that the payment of tithes was due to God, and that those who refused to pay them were to be excommunicated and were not to be absolved until full restitution had been made (Sess.25.12). Nevertheless, as a general practice of the Church in Europe, the institution was not destined to continue long. In the secularization of the state that followed the Reformation and the attendant circumstances of social and economic change, the system as it was known in earlier times became unworkable. The French Revolution brought tithing as a general method of Church support to an end. In the present law of the Church there remains no commonly applicable provision for tithes, although canon 1502 of the Code declares that particular laws or customs existing in some areas with regard to the payment of tithes were to be observed.
In the United States. In the U. S. no tithing system was ever generally employed except in the North Central and Mississippi Valley area where it was introduced by the Frehch and continued to be observed under English rule according to the provision of the Quebec Act. It was brought to an end when these lands were acquired by the U. S.
The Church in the U. S. has been supported in the main by voluntary contributions. In the early 19th century there was a disposition on the part of some to urge and enforce the obligation in conscience of the faithful to contribute to the Church by the imposition of certain ecclesiastical penalties. The First Synod of Baltimore considered those who failed to contribute to be unworthy of the Sacraments. The intervention of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith mitigated this severity. Instead of a compulsory method of Church support, the spirit of free-will offerings was advocated [May 13, 1816, pub. in Collect. of Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Rome 1907) n. 713 ad 2]. A decree of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore reflected this attitude (Acta, 292).
Bibliography: g. lepointe, Dictionnaire de droit canonique, ed. r. naz (Paris 1935–65) 4:1231–44. m. n. kremer, Church Support in the United States (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 61; Washington 1930). c. piontek, "Pennies Collections and Other Free-Will Offerings in the Code of Canon Law," American Ecclesiastical Review 109 (1943) 190–199, 272–279, 358–365. j. selinger, "Church Revenue by Assessment," ibid. 60 (1919) 439–441. f. j. connell, "The Obligation of Paying Tithes," ibid. 146 (1962) 346–350. j. a. macculloch, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 12:347–350.
[p. k. meagher/
"Tithes." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tithes
"Tithes." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tithes