Growing up in the Mormon faith I can recall many an occasion when the catholic was used as as the prime example of corruption and therefore proof of its falsehood. I remember a teacher telling our Sunday School class once that catholic church would tell its members that they if they payed a certain amount of money that the church had the ability to purchase their dead loved ones out of hell. Many of these followers were peasants and in low standing in the world and could hardly afford to feed themselves, and yet, believing that they could save a suffering loved one from the eternal fires of hell, would give these priest everything they had. My teacher told us how these same priests would then take this money and use it to live indulgent and sin filled lifestyles.
I remember being so incensed by this story. I couldn't believe that human beings would be capable of exploiting the most delicate feelings of grieving family members in order to elicit money for their own selfish purposes. What made it worse to me was that these men could clearly see that these people were in no position to give such offerings. Many of these people were starving to death and yet, through exploitation of fear and sympathies these corrupt men were able to take what little they had left.
This is of course was only one of the many examples that my teachers would use to show us what they claimed to be the contrast between the corrupt evilness of the Catholic church, and by comparison the inherent goodness of the LDS church.
Years later I would find myself sitting in the office of my then bishop. I was, at the time, in a singles ward and living in Orem Utah attending a local university. After a rather traumatic experience about a year prior, I had allowed my limited use temple recommend to expire, but had recently felt the promptings that it was time to return. I felt as though something or someone was telling me that the temple was where I needed to be, and at the time, I interpreted that someone or something to be God.
As I sat with my bishop and went over all of the required temple recommend questions I was able to answer them all without hesitation..
Do you have a testimony of Jesus Christ and God?
Have you kept yourself morally clean?
Do you sustain the prophet and first presidency as prophets, seers, and revelators?
Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow man?
As much as can be reasonably expected from a human being yes.
And then this question…
Are you a full tithe payer?
I explained to my bishop that I was a starving student living off of student loans.
I imagine that part of the trouble that was to follow might have something to do with the fact that my bishop had his entire education paid for by father and so he might have found it difficult to relate.
At any rate, I continued to explain that even though I had monies coming in, that there were from student loans that I would have to pay back someday. At the time I was taking a full course load, living on my own, and attempting to keep from starving to death (thank God for dating).
I think it is only fair to note that in the past when I had found myself in a similar situation with a bishop, their response had always been something to the effect of, So long as you promise to be a full tithe payer from this point on you should be good, and this was exactly the kind of response I expected to hear again. After all, I was a starving student, I was barely getting by myself, but I attended ALL of my meetings, fulfilled ALL of my callings, and was squeaky clean when it came to my conduct with the opposite sex. I was worthy to take the sacrament and I thought, had received a spiritual confirmation that I was not only worthy, but being urged to return to the temple.
So when my bishop looked at me with all soberness and told me that he could not in good conscious issue me my recommend I was devastated.
He would go on to explain to me that the bishops handbook was very clear on the matter. When I attempted to explain to him what other bishops had use as the rule of thumb in the past he informed me that it is exactly for this reason why the church has become more specific on its criteria. To hear him talk, it was as though the church was experiencing a slew of no-goods being able to scam their way into the temple on technicalities and interpretations.
He then went on to inform me that the official stance of the church was that anyone wishing to obtain a temple recommend (limited or otherwise) was required to be a full tithe payer, and according to him, a full tithe payer literally meant one full calendar years worth of tithes.
Again, I was dumbfounded.
As I continued to listen in shocked silence, my bishop told me that in order for me to receive my limited use recommend I would have to pay back one years worth of tithing, and we then began the almost impossible task of figuring out just how much tithing one years worth would equate to for me. Don’t ask me how, and I truly believe it turned out to be more arbitrary than anything based in reality, he settled on the amount of one thousand dollars.
I was heartbroken.
One thousand dollars? How and where in the world would I get that kind of money? I wasn't working, I was just scraping by as it was, and now I had to come up with more money then I spent on groceries for almost the entire year just so that I could return to the temple to do the work that I had been taught God had required me to do???
Needless to say I left his office that day without my recommend and without much hope of seeing one any time soon.
It is not until years later that I can now look back on my experience and see the unsettling similarities between the horror stories told me of the catholic church, and my own experience with that well-meaning bishop.
I in no way believe that this bishop had evil or corruption in his heart when he denied me my recommend, nor do I believe that had I payed him the money that he would have then turned around and spent it on a lavish and sinful lifestyle.
What I do find disturbing however is this idea that even though a person can be living a fairly rigid and to-the-letter obedient and moral life, that something as trivial as money could prove to be the one thing that keeps them from the presence of God.
I know not everyone will see it this way, nor do I expect them to, but for me, the difference between a priest asking a poor pauper for his last farthing in order to save his deceased child out of hell is not so far removed from a bishop asking a starving college student to give $1,000 in back tithing in order to enter only building where she can perform the requisite ordinances in order to save her dead relatives from the spirit prison.
But as hard as $1,000 would have been for me, I realize that I live in a society and close enough to family that I would never have to make the choice between giving my very last dollar and possibly going without food or shelter, and following what I have been taught are Gods requirements. I think of those thousands of saints in impoverished countries giving their last dime in faith because they believe it is what God requires of them and it honestly makes me a little ill.
This is of course to say nothing about where this tithing money actually goes, but since the church doesn't exactly have a full-disclosure policy, I am going to guess that not every penny of those offerings goes to feeding the needing and to building temples. I’m willing to bet that at least some of that money is going to maintaining a certain lifestyle for those leaders who sit in high positions of authority. This of course is based solely on what I have heard from active and faithful members of the church, and it makes sense, but at the same time, it is impossible to say how much and to whom it is going specifically.
Ultimately though, the matter of where the money goes is not as offensive to me as the fact that they would continue to require it in order to be in good standings with the church and with God. It is one thing to say, Give when you can and then leave it up to the best judgement of that person, and quite another to set a specific number regardless of a persons financial decision and then require that this amount be paid before blessing can be received. How knows, maybe God is that specific, maybe it isn’t the money itself but the sacrifice and the willing to be obedient that He is after. Or maybe, as seems common in our human history, certain individuals, religions, and organizations have found a subtle and compelling way to get their followers to give till it hurts and then 10% more.
So are we as Christians even after all of this time still falling for the same rouse? Are we as well-meaning believers still attempting to buy our way into heaven?