Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By merit ( meritum ) in general is understood that property of a good work which entitles the doer to receive a reward ( prœmium, merces ) from him in whose service the work is done. By antonomasia, the word has come to designate also the good work itself, in so far as it deserves a reward from the person in whose service it was performed.

In the theological sense, a supernatural merit can only be a salutary act ( actus salutaris ), to which God in consequence of his infallible promise owes a supernatural reward, consisting ultimately in eternal life, which is the beatific vision in heaven. As the main purpose of this article is to vindicate the Catholic doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, the subject is treated under the four following heads:

  • I. Nature of Merit;
  • II. Existence of Merit;
  • III. Conditions of Merit, and
  • IV. Objects of Merit.

I. NATURE OF MERIT

(a) If we analyse the definition given above, it becomes evident that the property of merit can be found only in works that are positively good, whilst bad works, whether they benefit or injure a third party, contain nothing but demerit ( demeritum ) and consequently deserve punishment. Thus the good workman certainly deserves the reward of his labour, and the thief deserves the punishment of his crime. From this it naturally follows that merit and reward, demerit and punishment, bear to each other the relation of deed and return; they are correlative terms of which one postulates the other. Reward is due to merit, and the reward is in proportion to the merit. This leads to the third condition, viz., that merit supposes two distinct persons, the one who acquires the merit and the other who rewards it; for the idea of self-reward is just as contradictory as that of self-punishment. Lastly, the relation between merit and reward furnishes the intrinsic reason why in the matter of service and its remuneration the guiding norm can be only the virtue of justice, and not disinterested kindness or pure mercy; for it would destroy the very notion of reward to conceive of it as a free gift of bounty (cf. Romans 11:6 ). If, however, salutary acts can in virtue of the Divine justice give the right to an eternal reward, this is possible only because they themselves have their root in gratuitous grace, and consequently are of their very nature dependent ultimately on grace, as the Council of Trent emphatically declares (Sess. VI, cap. xvi, in Denzinger, 10th ed., Freiburg, 1908, n. 810): "the Lord . . . whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things, which are His own gifts, be their merits."

Ethics and theology clearly distinguish two kinds of merit:

  • Condign merit or merit in the strict sense of the word ( meritum adœquatum sive de condigno ), and
  • congruous or quasi-merit ( meritum inadœquatum sive de congruo ).

Condign merit supposes an equality between service and return; it is measured by commutative justice ( justitia commutativa ), and thus gives a real claim to a reward. Congruous merit, owing to its inadequacy and the lack of intrinsic proportion between the service and the recompense, claims a reward only on the ground of equity. This early-scholastic distinction and terminology, which is already recognized in concept and substance by the Fathers of the Church in their controversies with the Pelagians and Semipelagians, were again emphasized by Johann Eck, the famous adversary of Martin Luther (cf. Greying, "Joh. Eck als junger Gelehrter," Münster, 1906, pp. 153 sqq.). The essential difference between meritum de condigno and meritum de congruo is based on the fact that, besides those works which claim a remuneration under pain of violating strict justice (as in contracts between employer and employee, in buying and selling, etc.), there are also other meritorious works which at most are entitled to reward or honour for reasons of equity ( ex œquitate ) or mere distributive justice ( ex iustitia distributiva ), as in the case of gratuities and military decorations. From an ethical point of view the difference practically amounts to this that, if the reward due to condign merit be withheld, there is a violation of right and justice and the consequent obligation in conscience to make restitution, while, in the case of congruous merit, to withhold the reward involves no violation of right and no obligation to restore, it being merely an offence against what is fitting or a matter of personal discrimination ( acceptio personarum ). Hence the reward of congruous merit always depends in great measure on the kindness and liberality of the giver, though not purely and simply on his good will.

In applying these notions of merit to man's relation to God it is especially necessary to keep in mind the fundamental truth that the virtue of justice cannot be brought forward as the basis of a real title for a Divine reward either in the natural or in the supernatural order. The simple reason is that God, being self-existent, absolutely independent, and sovereign, can be in no respect bound in justice with regard to his creatures. Properly speaking, man possesses nothing of his own; all that he has and all that he does is a gift of God , and, since God is infinitely self-sufficient, there is no advantage or benefit which man can by his services confer upon Him. Hence on the part of God there can only be question of a gratuitous promise of reward for certain good works. For such works He owes the promised reward, not in justice or equity, but solely because He has freely bound himself, i.e., because of His own attributes of veracity and fidelity. It is on this ground alone that we can speak of Divine justice at all, and apply the principle: Do ut des (cf. St. Augustine, Serm. clviii, c. ii, in P. L., XXXVIII, 863).

(b) There remains the distinction between merit and satisfaction; for a meritorious work is not identical, either in concept or in fact, with a satisfactory work. In the language of theology, satisfaction means:

  • atoning by some suitable service for an injury done to another's honour or for any other offence, in somewhat the same fashion as in modern duelling outraged honour is satisfied by recourse to swords or pistols;
  • paying off the temporal punishment due to sin by salutary penitential works voluntarily undertaken after one's sins have been forgiven.

Sin, as an offence against God, demands satisfaction in the first sense; the temporal punishment due to sin calls for satisfaction in the second sense (see PENANCE).

Christian faith teaches us that the Incarnate Son of God by His death on the cross has in our stead fully satisfied God's anger at our sins, and thereby effected a reconciliation between the world and its Creator. Not, however, as though nothing were now left to be done by man, or as though he were now restored to the state of original innocence, whether he wills it or not; on the contrary, God and Christ demand of him that he make the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross his own by personal exertion and co-operation with grace, by justifying faith and the reception of baptism. It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi; Sess. XIV, cap. viii).

The second kind of satisfaction, that namely by which temporal punishment is removed, consists in this, that the penitent after his justification gradually cancels the temporal punishments due to his sins, either ex opere operato , by conscientiously performing the penance imposed on him by his confessor, or ex opere operantis , by self-imposed penances (such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) and by bearing patiently the sufferings and trials sent by God ; if he neglects this, he will have to give full satisfaction ( satispassio ) in the pains of purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, can. xiii, in Denzinger, n. 923). Now, if the concept of satisfaction in its twofold meaning be compared with that of merit as developed above, the first general conclusion will be that merit constitutes a debtor who owes a reward, whilst satisfaction supposes a creditor whose demands must be met. In Christ's work of redemption merit and satisfaction materially coincide almost to their full extent, since as a matter of fact the merits of Christ are also works of satisfaction for man. But, since by His Passion and Death He truly merited, not only graces for us, but also external glory for His own Person (His glorious Resurrection and Ascension, His sitting at the right hand of the Father, the glorification of His name of Jesus, etc.), it follows that His personal merit extends further than His satisfaction, as He had no need of satisfying for Himself. The substantial and conceptual distinction between merit and satisfaction holds good when applied to the justified Christian, for every meritorious act has for its main object the increase of grace and of eternal glory, while satisfactory works have for their object the removal of the temporal punishment still due to sin. In practice and generally speaking, however, merit and satisfaction are found in every salutary act, so that every meritorious work is also satisfactory and vice versa. It is indeed also essential to the concept of a satisfactory work of penance that it be penal and difficult, which qualities are not connoted by the concept of merit; but since, in the present state of fallen nature, there neither is nor can be a meritorious work which in one way or another has not connected with it difficulties and hardships, theologians unanimously teach that all our meritorious works without exception bear a penal character and thereby may become automatically works of satisfaction. Against how many difficulties and distractions have we not to contend even during our prayers, which by right should be the easiest of all good works! Thus, prayer also becomes a penance, and hence confessors may in most cases content themselves with imposing prayer as a penance. (Cf. De Lugo, "De pœnitentia," disp. xxiv, sect. 3.)

(c) Owing to the peculiar relation between and material identity of merit and satisfaction in the present economy of salvation, a twofold value must in general be distinguished in every good work: the meritorious and the satisfactory value. But each preserves its distinctive character, theoretically by the difference in concepts, and practically in this, that the value of merit as such, consisting in the increase of grace and of heavenly glory, is purely personal and is not applicable to others, while the satisfactory value may be detached from the meriting agent and applied to others. The possibility of this transfer rests on the fact that the residual punishments for sin are in the nature of a debt, which may be legitimately paid to the creditor and thereby cancelled not only by the debtor himself but also by a friend of the debtor. This consideration is important for the proper understanding of the usefulness of suffrages for the souls in purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, Decret. de purgat., in Denzinger, n. 983). When one wishes to aid the suffering souls, one cannot apply to them the purely meritorious quality of his work, because the increase of grace and glory accrues only to the agent who merits. But it has pleased the Divine wisdom and mercy to accept the satisfactory quality of one's work under certain circumstances as an equivalent of the temporal punishment still to be endured by the faithful departed, just as if the latter had themselves performed the work. This is one of the most beautiful and consoling aspects of that grand social organization which we call the "Communion of Saints" , and moreover affords us an insight into the nature of the "heroic act of charity" approved by Pius IX, whereby the faithful on earth, out of heroic charity for the souls in Purgatory, voluntarily renounce in their favour the satisfactory fruits of all their good works, even all the suffrages which shall be offered for them after their death, in order that they may thus benefit and assist the souls in purgatory more quickly and more efficaciously.

The efficacy of the prayer of the just be it for the living or for the dead, calls for special consideration. In the first place it is evident that prayer as a pre-eminently good work has in common with other similar good works, such as fasting and almsgiving, the twofold value of merit and satisfaction. Because of its satisfactory character, prayer will also obtain for the souls in purgatory by way of suffrage ( per modum suffragii ) either a diminution or a total cancelling of the penalty that remains to be paid. Prayer has, moreover, the characteristic effect of impetration ( effectus impetratorius ), for he who prays appeals solely to the goodness, love, and liberality of God for the fulfilment of his desires, without throwing the weight of his own merits into the scale. He who prays fervently and unceasingly gains a hearing with God because he prays, even should he pray with empty hands (cf. John 14:13 sq. ; 16:23 ). Thus the special efficacy of prayer for the dead is easily explained, since it combines efficacy of satisfaction and impetration, and this twofold efficacy is enhanced by the personal worthiness of the one who, as a friend of God, offers the prayer. Since the meritoriousness of good works supposes the state of justification, or, what amounts to the same, the possession of sanctifying grace, supernatural merit is only an effect or fruit of the state of grace (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi). Hence, it is plain that this whole article is really only a continuation and a completion of the doctrine of sanctifying grace (see GRACE).

II. THE EXISTENCE OF MERIT

(a) According to Luther justification consists essentially in the mere covering of man's sins, which remain in the soul, and in the external imputation of Christ's justice ; hence his assertion that even "the just sin in every good work" (see Denzinger, n. 771), as also that "every work of the just is worthy of damnation [ damnabile ] and a mortal sin [ peccatum mortale ], if it be considered as it really is in the judgment of God " (see Möhler, "Symbolik", 22). According to the doctrine of Calvin (Instit., III, ii, 4) good works are "impurities and defilement" ( inquinamenta et sordes ), but God covers their innate hideousness with the cloak of the merits of Christ, and imputes them to the predestined as good works in order that He may requite them not with life eternal, but at most with a temporal reward. In consequence of Luther's proclamation of "evangelical liberty", John Agricola (died 1566) asserted that in the New Testament it was not allowed to preach the "Law", and Nicholas Amsdorf (died 1565) maintained that good works were positively harmful. Such exaggerations gave rise in 1527 to the fierce Antinomian controversy, which, after various efforts on Luther's part, was finally settled in 1540 by the recantation forced from Agricola by Joachim II of Brandenburg. Although the doctrine of modern Protestantism continues obscure and indefinite, it teaches generally speaking that good works are a spontaneous consequence of justifying faith, without being of any avail for life eternal. Apart from earlier dogmatic declarations given in the Second Synod of Orange of 529 and in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (see Denzinger, 191, 430), the Council of Trent upheld the traditional doctrine of merit by insisting that life everlasting is both a grace and a reward (Sess. VI, cap. xvi, in Denzinger, n. 809). It condemned as heretical Luther's doctrine of the sinfulness of good works (Sess. VI, can. xxv), and declared as a dogma that the just, in return for their good works done in God through the merits of Jesus Christ, should expect an eternal reward (loc. cit., can. xxvi).

This doctrine of the Church simply echoes Scripture and Tradition. The Old Testament already declares the meritoriousness of good works before God. "But the just shall live for evermore: and their reward is with the Lord" ( Wisdom 5:16 ). "Be not afraid to be justified even to death: for the reward of God continueth for ever" (Ecclus., xviii, 22). Christ Himself adds a special reward to each of the Eight Beatitudes and he ends with this fundamental thought: "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven " ( Matthew 5:12 ) In His description of the Last Judgment, He makes the possession of eternal bliss depend on the practice of the corporal works of mercy ( Matthew 25:34 sqq. ). Although St. Paul insists on nothing more strongly than the absolute gratuitousness of Christian grace, still he acknowledges merits founded on grace and also the reward due to them on the part of God, which he variously calls "prize" ( Philippians 3:14 ; 1 Corinthians 9:24 ) "reward" ( Colossians 3:24 ; 1 Corinthians 3:8 ), "crown of justice " ( 2 Timothy 4:7 sq. ; cf. James 1:12 ). It is worthy of note that, in these and many others good works are not represented as mere adjuncts of justifying faith, but as real fruits of justification and part causes of our eternal happiness. And the greater the merit, the greater will be the reward in heaven (cf. Matthew 16:27 ; 1 Corinthians 3:8 ; 2 Corinthians 9:6 ). Thus the Bible itself refutes the assertion that "the idea of merit is originally foreign to the Gospel" (" Realencyklopädie für protest. Theologie," XX, 3rd ed. Leipzig, 1908, p. 501). That Christian grace can be merited either by the observance of the Jewish law or by mere natural works (see GRACE) this alone is foreign to the Bible . On the other hand, eternal reward is promised in the Bible to those supernatural works which are performed in the state of grace, and that because they are meritorious (cf. Matthew 25:34 sqq. ; Romans 2:6 sqq. ; 2 Corinthians 5:10 ).

Even Protestants concede that, in the oldest literature of the Apostolic Fathers and Christian Apologists, "the idea of merit was read into the Gospel," and that Tertullian by defending "merit in the strict sense gave the key-note to Western Catholicism " (Realencykl., pp. 501, 502). He was followed by St. Cyprian with the declaration: "You can attain to the vision of God, if you deserve it by your life and works" ("De op. et elemos.", xiv, ed. Hartel, I, 384). With St. Ambrose (De offic., I, xv, 57) and St. Augustine (De morib. eccl., I, xxv), the other Fathers of the Church took the Catholic doctrine on merit as a guide in their teaching, especially in their homilies to the faithful, so that uninterrupted agreement is secured between Bible and Tradition, between patristic and scholastic teaching, between the past and the present. If therefore "the reformation was mainly a struggle against the doctrine of merit" (Realencyklopädie, loc. cit., p. 506) this only proves that the Council of Trent defended against unjustified innovations the old doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, founded alike on Scripture and Tradition.

(b) This doctrine of the Church, moreover, fully accords with natural ethics. Divine Providence, as the supreme lawgiver, owes it to itself to give efficacious sanction to both the natural and the supernatural law with their many commandments and prohibitions, and to secure their observance by holding out rewards and punishments. Even human laws are provided with sanctions, which are often very severe. He who denies the meritoriousness of good works performed by the just must necessarily also deny the culpability and demerit of the sinner's misdeeds; must hold that sins remain without punishment, and that the fear of hell is both groundless and useless. If there be no eternal reward for an upright life and no eternal chastisement for sin, it will matter little to the majority of people whether they lead a good or a bad life. It is true that, even if there were neither reward nor punishment, it would be contrary to rational nature to lead an immoral life; for the moral obligation to do always what is right, does not of itself depend on retribution. But Kant undoubtedly went too far when he repudiated as immoral those actions which are performed with a view to our personal happiness or to that of others, and proclaimed the "categorical imperative", i.e., frigid duty clearly perceived, as the only motive of moral conduct. For, though this so-called "autonomy of the moral will" may at first sight appear highly ideal, still it is unnatural and cannot be carried out in practical life, because virtue and happiness, duty and merit (with the claim to reward), are not mutually exclusive, but, as correlatives, they rather condition and complete each other. The peace of a good conscience that follows the faithful performance of duty is an unsought-for reward of our action and an interior happiness of which no calamity can deprive us, so that, as a matter of fact, duty and happiness are always linked together.

(c) But is not this continual acting "with one eye on heaven ", with which Professor Jodl reproaches Catholic moral teaching, the meanest "mercenary spirit" and greed which necessarily vitiates to the core all moral action? Can there be any question of morality, if it is only the desire for eternal bliss or simply the fear of hell that determines one to do good and avoid evil ? Such a disposition is certainly far from being the ideal of Catholic morality. On the Contrary, the Church proclaims to all her children that pure love of God is the first and supreme commandment (cf. Mark 12:30 ). It is our highest ideal to act out of love. For he who truly loves God would keep His commandments, even though there were no eternal reward in the next life. Nevertheless, the desire for heaven is a necessary and natural consequence of the perfect love of God ; for heaven is only the perfect possession of God by love. As a true friend desires to see his friend without thereby sinking into egotism so does the loving soul ardently desire the Beatific Vision, not from a craving for reward, but out of pure love. It is unfortunately too true that only the best type of Christians, and especially the great saints of the Church, reach this high standard of morality in everyday life. The great majority of ordinary Christians must be deterred from sin principally by the fear of hell and spurred on to good works by the thought of an eternal reward, before they attain perfect love. But, even for those souls who love God, there are times of grave temptation when only the thought of heaven and hell keeps them from falling. Such a disposition, be it habitual or only transitory, is morally less perfect, but it is not immoral. As, according to Christ's doctrine and that of St. Paul (see above), it is legitimate to hope for a heavenly reward, so, according to the same doctrine of Christ (cf. Matthew 10:28 ), the fear of hell is a motive of moral action, a "grace of God and an impulse of the Holy Ghost " (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, cap. iv, in Denzinger, n. 898). Only that desire for remuneration ( amor mercenarius ) is reprehensible which would content itself with an eternal happiness without God, and that "doubly servile fear " ( timor serviliter servilis ) is alone immoral which proceeds from a mere dread of punishment without at the same time fearing God. But the dogmatic as well as the moral teaching of the Church avoids both of these extremes (see ATTRITION).

Besides blaming the Church for fostering a "craving for reward," Protestants also accuse her of teaching "justification by works". External works alone, they allege, such as fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimages, the recitation of the rosary etc., make the Catholic good and holy, the intenor intention and disposition being held to no account. "The whole doctrine of merit, especially as explained by Catholics is based on the erroneous view which places the essence of morality in the individual action without any regard for the interior disposition as the habitual direction of the personal will" (Realencyklopädie, loc. cit., p. 508). Only the grossest ignorance of Catholic doctrine can prompt such remarks. In accord with the Bible the Church teaches that the external work has a moral value only when and in so far as it proceeds from a right interior disposition and intention (cf. Matthew 6:1 sqq. ; Mark 12:41 sqq. ; 1 Corinthians 10:31 , etc.). As the body receives its life from the soul, so must external actions be penetrated and vivified by holiness of intention. In a beautiful play on words St. Augustine says (Serm. iii, n. xi): Bonos mores faciunt boni amores . Hence the Church urges her children to forming each morning the "good intention ", that they may thereby sanctify the whole day and make even the indifferent actions of their exterior life serve for the glory of God ; "all for the greater glory of God ", is the constant prayer of the faithful Catholic. Not only does the moral teaching of the Catholic Church attribute no moral value whatever to the mere external performance of good works without a corresponding good intention, but it detests such performance as hyprocrisy and pretence. On the other hand, our good Intention, provided it be genuine and deep-rooted, naturally spurs us on to external works, and without these works it would be reduced to a mere semblance of life.

A third charge against the Catholic doctrine on merit is summed up in the word "self-righteousness", as if the just man utterly disregarded the merits of Christ and arrogated to himself the whole credit of his good works. If any Catholic has ever been so pharisaical as to hold and practise this doctrine, he has certainly set himself in direct opposition to what the Church teaches. The Church has always proclaimed what St. Augustine expresses in the words: "Non Dens coronat merita tua tanquam merita tua, sed tanquam dona sua" (De grat. et lib. arbitrio, xv), i.e., God crowns thy merits, not as thine earnings, but as His gifts. Nothing was more strong and frequently inculcated by the Council of Trent than the proposition that the faithful owe their entire capability of meriting and all their good works solely to the infinite merits of the Redeemer Jesus Christ. It is indeed clear that meritorious works, as "fruits of the justification", cannot be anything but merits due to grace, and not merits due to nature (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi). The Catholic certainly must rely on the merits of Christ, and, far from boasting of his own self-righteousness, he must acknowledge in all humility that even his merits, acquired with the help of grace, are full of imperfections, and that his justification is uncertain (see GRACE). Of the satisfactory works of penance the Council of Trent makes this explicit declaration: "Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ, in whom we live, move, and make satisfaction, bringing forth fruits worthy of penance, which from Him have their efficacy, are by Him offered to the Father, and through Him find with the Father acceptance " (Sess. XIV, cap. viii, in Denzinger, n. 904). Does this read like self-righteousness?

III. CONDITIONS OF MERIT

For all true merit ( vere mereri ; Council of Trent, Sess. VI, can. xxxii), by which is to be understood only meritum de condigno (see Pallavicini, "Hist. Concil. Trident.", VIII, iv), theologians have set down seven conditions, of which four regard the meritorious work, two the agent who merits, and one God who rewards.

(a) In order to be meritorious a work must be morally good, morally free, done with the assistance of actual grace, and inspired by a supernatural motive. As every evil deed implies demerit and deserves punishment, so the very notion of merit supposes a morally good work. St. Paul teaches that "whatsoever good thing [ bonum ] any man shall do, the same shall he receive from the Lord, whether he be bond, or free" (Eph. vi, 8). Not only are more perfect works of supererogation, such as the vow of perpetual chastity, good and meritorious but also works of obligation, such as the faithful observance of the commandments. Christ Himself actually made the attainment of heaven depend on the mere observance of the ten commandments when he answered the youth who was anxious about his salvation : "If thou wilt enter into life keep the commandments" ( Matthew 19:17 ). According to the authentic declaration of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) the married state is also meritorious for heaven : "Not only those who live in virginity and continence, but also those who are married, please God by their faith and good works and merit eternal happiness " (cap. Firmiter, in Denzinger, n. 430). As to morally indifferent actions (e.g., exercise and play, recreation derived from reading and music), some moralists hold with the Scotists that such works may be indifferent not only in the abstract but also practically; this opinion, however is rejected by the majority of theologians. Those who hold this view must hold that such morally indifferent actions are neither meritorious nor demeritorious, but become meritorious in proportion as they are made morally good by means of the "good intention ". Although the voluntary omission of a work of obligation, such as the hearing of Mass on Sundays, is sinful and thereby demeritorious, still, according to the opinion of Francisco Suárez (De gratia, X, ii, 5 sqq.), it is more than doubtful whether conversely the mere omission of a bad action is in itself meritorious. But the overcoming of a temptation would be meritorious, since this struggle is a positive act and not a mere omission. Since the external work as such derives its entire moral value from the interior disposition, it adds no increase of merit except in so far as it reacts on the will and has the effect of intensifying and sustaining its action (cf. De Lugo, "De pœnit.", disp. xxiv, sect. 6).

As to the second requisite, i.e., moral liberty, it is clear from ethics that actions, due to external force or internal compulsion, can deserve neither reward nor punishment. It is an axiom of criminal jurisprudence that no one shall be punished for a misdeed done without free will ; similarly, a good work can only then be meritorious and deserving of reward when it proceeds from a free determination of the will. This is the teaching of Christ ( Matthew 19:21 ): "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven."

The necessity of the third condition, i.e., of the influence of actual grace, is clear from the fact that every act meriting heaven must evidently be supernatural just as heaven itself is supernatural, and that consequently it cannot be performed without the help of prevenient and assisting grace, which is necessary even for the just. The strictly supernatural destiny of the Beatific Vision, for which the Christian must strive, necessitates ways and means which lie altogether beyond what is purely natural (see GRACE).

Finally, a supernatural motive is required because good works must be supernatural, not only as regards their object and circumstances, but also as regards the end for which they are performed ( ex fine ). But, in assigning the necessary qualities of this motive, theologians differ widely. While some require the motive of faith ( motivum fidei ) in order to have merit, others demand in addition the motive of charity ( motivum caritatis ), and thus, by rendering the conditions more difficult, considerably restrict the extent of meritorious works (as distinguished from merely good works). Others again set down as the only condition of merit that the good work of the just man, who already has habitual faith and charity, be in conformity with the Divine law, and require no other special motive. This last opinion, which is in accordance with the practice of the majority of the faithful, is tenable, provided faith and charity exert at least an habitual (not necessarily virtual or actual) influence upon the good work, which influence essentially consists in this, that man at the time of his conversion makes an act of faith and of love of God, thereby knowingly and willingly beginning his supernatural journey towards God in heaven ; this intention habitually retains its influence as long as it has not been revoked by mortal sin. And, since there is a grave obligation to make acts of faith, hope, and charity from time to time, these two motives will thereby be occasionally renewed and revived. For the controversy regarding the motive of faith see Chr. Pesch, "Prælect. dogmat.", V, 3rd ed. (1908), 225 sqq.; on the motive of charity, see Pohle, "Dogmatik" II 4th ed. (1909), 565 sqq.

(b) The agent who merits must fulfil two conditions : He must be in the state of pilgrimage ( status viœ ) and in the state of grace ( status gratiœ ). By the state of pilgrimage is to be understood our earthly life; death as a natural (although not an essentially necessary ) limit, closes the time of meriting. The time of sowing is confined to this life; the reaping is reserved for the next, when no man will be able to sow either wheat or cockle. Comparing the earthly life with day and the time after death with night, Christ says: "The night cometh, when no man can work [ operari ]" ( John 9:4 ; cf. Ecclesiastes 11:3 ; Sirach 14:17 ). The opinion proposed by a few theologians (Hirscher, Schell), that for certain classes of men there may still be a possibility of conversion after death, is contrary to the revealed truth that the particular judgment ( judicium particulare ) determines instantly and definitively whether the future is to be one of eternal happiness or of eternal misery (cf. Kleutgen, "Theologie der Vorzeit", II, 2nd ed., Münster, 1872, pp. 427 sqq.). Baptized children, who die before attaining the age of reason, are admitted to heaven without merits on the sole title of inheritance ( titulus hœreditatis ); in the case of adults, however, there is the additional title of reward ( titulus mercedis ), and for that reason they will enjoy a greater measure of eternal happiness.

In addition to the state of pilgrimage, the state of grace (i.e., the possession of sanctifying grace ) is required for meriting, because only the just can be "sons of God " and "heirs of heaven " (cf. Romans 8:17 ). In the parable of the vine Christ expressly declares the "abiding in him" a necessary condition for "bearing fruit": "He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit" ( John 15:5 ); and this constant union with Christ is effected only by sanctifying grace . In opposition to Vasquez, most theologians are of opinion that one who is holier will gain greater merit for a given work than one who is less holy, although the latter perform the same work under exactly the same circumstances and in the same way. The reason is that a higher degree of grace enhances the godlike dignity of the agent, and this dignity increases the value of the merit. This explains why God, in consideration of the greater holiness of some saints specially dear to Him, has deigned to grant favours which otherwise He would have refused ( Job 42:8 ; Daniel 3:35 ).

(c) Merit requires on the part of God that He accept ( in actu secundo ) the good work as meritorious, even though the work in itself ( in actu primo ) and previous to its acceptance by God, be already truly meritorious. Theologians, however, are not agreed as to the necessity of this condition. The Scotists hold that the entire condignity of the good work rests exclusively on the gratuitous promise of God and His free acceptance, without which even the most heroic act is devoid of merit, and with which even mere naturally good works may become meritorious. Other theologians with Francisco Suárez (De gratia, XIII, 30) maintain that, before and without Divine acceptance, the strict equality that exists between merit and reward founds a claim of justice to have the good works rewarded in heaven. Both these views are extreme. The Scotists almost completely lose sight of the godlike dignity which belongs to the just as " adopted children of God ", and which naturally impresses on their supernatural actions the character of meritoriousness; Francisco Suárez, on the other hand, unnecessarily exaggerates the notion of Divine justice and the condignity of merit, for the abyss that lies between human service and Divine remuneration is ever so wide that there could be no obligation of bridging it over by a gratuitous promise of reward and the subsequent acceptance on the part of God who has bound himself by His own fidelity. Hence we prefer with Lessius (De perfect. moribusque div., XIII, ii) and De Lugo (De incarnat. disp. 3, sect. 1 sq.) to follow a middle course. We therefore say that the condignity between merit and reward owes its origin to a twofold source: to the intrinsic value of the good work and to the free acceptance and gratuitous promise of God (cf. James 1:12 ). See Schiffini, "De gratia divina" (Freiburg, 1901), pp. 416 sqq.

IV. THE OBJECTS OF MERIT

Merit in the strict sense ( meritum de condigno ) gives a right to a threefold reward: increase of sanctifying grace, heavenly glory, and the increase thereof; other graces can be acquired only in virtue of congruous merit ( meritum de conqruo ).

(a) In its Sixth Session (can. xxxii), the Council of Trent declared: "If any one saith . . . that the justified man by good works . . . does not truly merit [ vere mereri ] increase of grace eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life — if so be, however, that he depart in grace — and also an increase in glory ; let him be anathema." The expression "vere mereri" shows that the three objects mentioned above can be merited in the true and strict sense of the word, viz., de condigno . Increase of grace ( augmentum gratiœ ) is named in the first place to exclude the first grace of justification concerning which the council had already taught: "None of those things, which precede justification — whether faith or works — merit the grace itself of justification" (Sess. VI, cap. viii). This impossibility of meriting the first habitual grace is as much a dogma of our Faith as the absolute impossibility of meriting the first actual grace (see GRACE). The growth in sanctifying grace, on the ot


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 4:1-6
1 I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you therefore to ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 [Psalm Of David] To Yahweh belong the earth and all ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:54-59
54 He said again to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 24th, 2014 Image

St. Anthony Mary Claret
October 24: Claretian archbishop and founder. Anthony was born in Salient in ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter