The Catholic view of merit

Many (or most, or bunches of) Protestants have the false idea in their heads that the Catholic Church teaches we are saved by our works: that we can merit entrance into heaven somehow based upon something we do. This is so common a mistake that it is practically assumed by lots of them to be an accurate thumbnail depiction of how things really are. Unfortunately someone hit that thumb with a hammer, and so the picture is completely distorted and swollen. And it hurts like heck.

Here is what the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the subject:

In general merit refers to the right to recompense for a good deed. With regard to God, we of ourselves are not able to merit anything, having received everything freely from him. However, God gives us the possibility of acquiring merit through union with the love of Christ, who is the source of our merits before God. The merits for good works, therefore must be attributed in the first place to the grace of God and then to the free will of man. [§426; emphasis added]

And:

No one, however, can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion and justification. [ibid., §427]

Some critics might be tempted to suggest that these declarations reflect a spirit of modernity or modification at Vatican II, and that they do not accurately represent what the Church has always taught. These critics are mistaken. Take, for example, this statement from St. Thomas Aquinas:

Man can of his own accord fall into sin: but he cannot advance in merit without the Divine assistance. [ST I q.114 a.3 ad 3; emphasis added)

Some more stubborn critics might be disposed to claim that the Council of Trent abandoned what Aquinas taught. This too is mistaken, as is obvious from reading the Council’s Decree on Justification from the Sixth Session. For example, in the penultimate paragraph of chapter XVI we read:

far be it that a Christian man should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord, whose goodness towards all men is so great, that He will have the things which are His own gifts to be their own merits. [emphasis added]

So there you have it. The Church has never taught that we are saved by our own merits, nor even that our own merits are, properly speaking, truly and completely our own. Rather, they are gifts from God. This comports with common sense. Natural powers (like any human activity whatsoever) can never bridge the gap to the supernatural—to God. It is not merely contrary to the Church’s teaching to say that we can earn salvation; it is also just plain irrational.

It might be worth mentioning that this view is consistent with the Bible, too. Look at what St. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20:

What do you think is our hope and our joy, and what our crown of honour in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? You are, for you are our pride and joy. [NJB]

A crown of honour can surely only refer to some form of reward, and Paul says that the Thessalonians are his crown, undoubtedly because of their faithfulness. But this is not a reward that Paul could have earned himself, strictly speaking, because he was not able to give the Thessalonians the grace of God, nor the gift of faith. So if they are a reward, a crown for him, it can only be by the grace and gift of Christ and not by something done solely by Paul.

And similarly in 1 Corinthians 9:16-18:

In fact, preaching the gospel gives me nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion and I should be in trouble if I failed to do it. If I did it on my own initiative I would deserve a reward; but if I do it under compulsion I am simply accepting a task entrusted to me. What reward do I have, then? That in my preaching I offer the gospel free of charge to avoid using the rights which the gospel allows me. [NJB]

In this passage St. Paul denies that he has earned any reward by preaching the gospel because he does so “under compulsion,” at God’s command. But he immediately proceeds to declare that he does expect a reward, though: a reward for preaching without compensation, which he could have rightly claimed from the churches he founded. In other words, St. Paul expects a reward not for preaching but for doing so without accepting payment from men. The worker is worthy of his wages, but Paul takes none. Again, though, this is not a reward he could earn on his own: God first called him to preach, and God made his preaching fruitful, and God moved him to preach without payment.

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Posted in Apologetics, Council of Trent, Merit, Vatican II
6 comments on “The Catholic view of merit
  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Thanks very much, sir! :-)

    Fred

  3. Nice summary.

    In a way, “merit” is that which all the controversy surrounding the doctrine of justification revolves. That is, many of the forensic aspects and technicalities of the Protestant doctrine of justification are just so many ways Protestants have attempted to exclude merit and the use of the word when considering the human’s role in salvation. What’s occurred to me is this: I know from having been a Protestant that this devotion to such forensic technicalities on the part of academically trained theologians flows from a more common non-academic practice of evangelical piety, which uses this language to exalt the degree of grace God shows us in salvation, and to stir up virtue deep within the heart—namely, gratitude and humility: the humility of recognizing one’s sin and powerlessness to change oneself or one’s destiny to be doomed without divine help and the gratitude that is incited by meditation on one’s undeserving, sinful, helpless, and hopeless state apart from grace.

    Placing our “merit” as a technicality into this heart of evangelical piety, even if logically qualified in all the right ways to be consistent with that piety, still places the virtues that flow from it in danger of being either weakened or undermined for the common people (who cannot internalize such technical distinctions easily . This is because it misses the point of the theological language itself—we could call this the “spirit” of the language much like we refer to the “spirit” of the law. This is why evangelicals are so opposed to it, even if it’s defined as “reward” and qualified sufficiently to rule out any kind of merit that would logically threaten the priority of grace. If it threatens the efficacy of the theological language to cultivate deep evangelical piety (humility and gratitude) it will be rejected even if it makes logical sense. What is most “logical” or best synthesizes various logical “tensions” in theology has never been the telos of theology. Piety, on the other hand, has always been the chief aim of theological language. What I’m trying to say is this: I have come to see how the ancient maxim Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi [the law of prayer is the law of belief] applies to the ecumenical discussions between Protestants and Catholics. It reflects a shift in strategy of piety and worship, and all the technicalities of the doctrine of justification are designed to protect and enshrine this piety, even if the technicalities are logically problematic in some way once examined with analytical scrutiny.

    I also think this is why the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals has so drastically changed merely by the two sides being able to see and appreciate how the other address their concerns in their theological language, even though many of the points of disagreement still necessarily exist by the “competing” theological models (e.g. evangelicals and Catholics together, the Joint Declaration, etc.). It’s a way of simply getting past these technicalities and realizing the limitations on human language—including biblical and theological language.

    Any thoughts?

    Pax,

    Bradley

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Bradley,

    Nice summary.

    Thanks! :-)

    In a way, “merit” is that which all the controversy surrounding the doctrine of justification revolves. That is, many of the forensic aspects and technicalities of the Protestant doctrine of justification are just so many ways Protestants have attempted to exclude merit and the use of the word when considering the human's role in salvation. What's occurred to me is this: I know from having been a Protestant that this devotion to such forensic technicalities on the part of academically trained theologians flows from a more common non-academic practice of evangelical piety, which uses this language to exalt the degree of grace God shows us in salvation, and to stir up virtue deep within the heart—namely, gratitude and humility: the humility of recognizing one's sin and powerlessness to change oneself or one's destiny to be doomed without divine help and the gratitude that is incited by meditation on one's undeserving, sinful, helpless, and hopeless state apart from grace.

    I agree. The idea of human merit is at the center of the disputes. There is misunderstanding on the Protestant side as to what the Church teaches about it, and I think that it is not very carefully explained by many Catholic priests and catechists, which contributes to misunderstanding among Catholics (and consequently to Protestant-Catholic disputes.. The actual doctrine taught by the Church really ought to be uncontroversial to any non-Pelagian.

    Placing our “merit” as a technicality into this heart of evangelical piety, even if logically qualified in all the right ways to be consistent with that piety, still places the virtues that flow from it in danger of being either weakened or undermined for the common people (who cannot internalize such technical distinctions easily . This is because it misses the point of the theological language itself—we could call this the “spirit” of the language much like we refer to the “spirit” of the law. This is why evangelicals are so opposed to it, even if it's defined as “reward” and qualified sufficiently to rule out any kind of merit that would logically threaten the priority of grace. If it threatens the efficacy of the theological language to cultivate deep evangelical piety (humility and gratitude) it will be rejected even if it makes logical sense. What is most “logical” or best synthesizes various logical “tensions” in theology has never been the telos of theology. Piety, on the other hand, has always been the chief aim of theological language. What I'm trying to say is this: I have come to see how the ancient maxim Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi [the law of prayer is the law of belief] applies to the ecumenical discussions between Protestants and Catholics. It reflects a shift in strategy of piety and worship, and all the technicalities of the doctrine of justification are designed to protect and enshrine this piety, even if the technicalities are logically problematic in some way once examined with analytical scrutiny.

    Yes. I think that philosophical mistakes (Luther & Calvin abandoning Aquinas) have contributed too. I mean, the very idea of strictly human merit being sufficient to attain heaven is so far from Thomas & Augustine. The natural cannot bridge the gap and climb above nature to the supernatural except by the grace of God.

    I also think this is why the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals has so drastically changed merely by the two sides being able to see and appreciate how the other address their concerns in their theological language, even though many of the points of disagreement still necessarily exist by the “competing” theological models (e.g. evangelicals and Catholics together, the Joint Declaration, etc.). It's a way of simply getting past these technicalities and realizing the limitations on human language—including biblical and theological language.

    I think the Internet has been critical. Catholics are now able to communicate directly with Protestants instead of having their arguments dismissed by Protestant ministers who wrongly think that Catholic views have been refuted since the 1500s. The reality is a lack of engagement with the arguments which got worse until the rise of the web. Also, I once again say that philosophy was the fundamental problem. Luther followed Ockham. Nominalism is close to being the real problem.

    I will be busy for the next few days and may not have time to continue the conversation. You will know if any further comments of yours go unacknowledged for a while. :-)

    Peace,

    Fred

  5. Fred,

    Once the ignorance of Protestants and Catholics is dispelled, and enlightened ecumenical discussion takes place, we get documents like the Joint Declaration. When ignorance causes a hermeneutic of distrust prevail, both step into a time machine and travel back into the Reformation era, reverting to a simplistic understanding of how theological language works, and charity does not imbue the agenda. But when ignorance is overcome, the hermeneutic of distrust is replaced by a brotherly charity voicing concerns about the others’ theological paradigm. This latter situation, I am glad to say, marks the current era in which we live. We shouldn’t be ungrateful for that, or fail to recognize it. There is still a ways to go, but the “heart” of the conflict, in my opinion, is erased when ignorance is mitigated.

    Now your belief that the Internet has a lot to do with this doesn’t not sound entirely implausible, but other historical timing factors play a role as well in making our world smaller, such as the ease of travel and communication through phone and social media. Add to this national contexts, such as in America, where Protestants and Catholics found themselves allies in opposing what the pope called a “culture of death” (abortion, euthanasia, secularism, etc.).

    This political agenda created a new context for those evangelicals fighting with the Catholics, a context where the enemy had changed and dialogue was now “in house” due to a broadening of perspective which saw Catholics in comparison to secularists. This helped evangelicals to appreciate the energy and conviction in the Catholics they befriended, and opened their eyes to see that Catholics (in spite of all the trappings of their bad Catholic theology!) spoke and lived in a manner that for all practical purposes seemed to indicate they had been “born again” and had a recognizable piety they found closer to their own evangelical piety than the piety they encountered in many Protestants. Almost like they were …. evangelicals. LoL

    This caused evangelicals to better love and respect the Catholics, which issued in a respect for the Catholic Tradition. This had much to do with their being willing to re-examine their biases and prejudices, for no such disposition would’ve been created merely by reading books or blogs written by other Catholics, in which the stakes have been stripped from the personal relationships and comradery within a new political context that came about in America. I’m sure other nations have their own political contexts which hinder or help the ecumenical spirit, but whatever they are, they are certain to be influential and shape perspectives. Anything that helps us get beyond our parochialism and better internalize a “bigger picture” can potentially reduce hostilities into an ever-receding pocket of ignorance and pride, even if it can’t magically wipe away the linguistic contradictions that result from competing theological models aiming at the same end.

    Enjoy your holiday and comment only if it’s convenient,

    Bradley

  6. aquinasetc says:

    Hi Bradley,

    I have no problem with what you’ve said, and my experience probably has been a bit insular. I have dealt with the hardcore Reformed primarily since becoming Catholic, and I think that what I said tends to be more accurate with respect to them than to evangelicals generally.

    I hope you had a good holiday. :-)

    Peace,

    Fred

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