Saturday, January 13, 2007

Is it moral to tithe when bankrupt? Catholic Church’s position not clear.

When Fred and Patricia Diagostino, an upstate New York couple, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year under the updated bankruptcy law of 2005, they listed their living expenses as required.

There was a glitch, however. The Diagostinos, whose income is above the median for New York State, included among their monthly expenses $100 in "continued charitable contributions" to their church.

The contributions were disallowed as a "reasonably necessary expense" because, under IRS guidelines, charitable contributions of any kind can only be considered necessary under very limited circumstances, such as when the bankrupt party is a minister and required by contract to tithe to his or her church.

The decision, upheld by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Littlefield Jr., flies in the face of the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act of 1998.

That law was enacted "to specifically protect tithing in the context of bankruptcy law," according to a September 2006 letter from Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Indeed, people who go bankrupt while making less than the median income for their state were still allowed to include tithing or other church contributions when they calculated their living expenses under the 2005 law.

It was only those making above the median income who were affected by the new law.

Law to change

Bankrupt families will no longer need to worry about whether they can continue to make such contributions under a bill sponsored by Sens. Hatch and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) The bill has been passed by both houses of Congress and awaits President Bush's signature.

"Congress has a long history of protecting our religious freedom to tithe," Hatch said in a statement Dec. 6, the day the bill passed the House of Representatives. "That was our intent when we enacted bankruptcy reform last year, and this bill clarifies the law so that those who tithe can continue to live their faith while in bankruptcy."

"For millions of Americans, charitable giving and tithing is an essential part of their lives," Obama said. "And in a country where 37 million citizens live in poverty, we should be encouraging charitable giving, not limiting it."

Is it theft?

But Catholic moral theologians aren't so sure that's a good thing. There are names for incurring debt without the resources to repay it – names like theft and fraud. Is it moral to use money already owed to someone else – money already spent – to support a church?

Should the church – Catholic or otherwise – accept money that in justice is owed to someone else?

After all, increasing the amount a bankrupt family can keep for its expenses, charitable or otherwise, by $100 a month over their five years in Chapter 13 bankruptcy means $6,000 that their creditors will never get.

For members of some Jewish and Christian denominations, the answer is yes – tithing is an obligation, not a choice. Even Catholics are taught that they have a moral obligation to help the church build up the kingdom of God. [....Snip]

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