One of the major differences between Catholicism and Protestant forms of Christianity is the idea of supernatural merit. Merit in its natural sense is a reward earned for some kind of work (ST I-II Q. 114 A. 1 co.). In the case of God and man, man can only merit insofar as God has given him the ability to do so. This work includes the concepts of free will and good works on man’s part along with the grace necessary to do them (Hardon IX). This idea is present in all of salvation history but becomes clearer in Christ.
In the Old Testament, we often see distributive justice. Those who do not obey the law are punished. On the other hand, those who obey the commandments are promised life in reward for their actions (Hardon IX). In Wisdom literature, we see the promise of reward in the next life for the works of this world. When Christ taught the beatitudes, we find spiritual rewards offered for those who are pure or persecuted for His sake (Hardon IX).
In the letter of Paul, we find that man is completely incapable of performing supernaturally good works of his own ability (Hardon IX). Yet, he and other parts of the New Testament still attest the faithful with be blessed with joy in heaven. Catholic teaching on merit reconciles our need for grace with the reward for our faithfulness.
God communicates Himself to man in such a way that man can cooperate with God’s gifts (Stevens 93). These works rely on grace to enable them as well as man’s free cooperation with that grace (Hardon 286). Everlasting life is not proportionate with our nature and hence we need help to attain such an end (ST I-II Q 114 A 2 co). However, our cooperation with that end is not coerced. God has chosen to bind Himself to reward our charity (Hardon IX). Whenever a man works with the will and grace of God he is rewarded out of divine justice (Stevens 94).
However, these merits are linked with Christ’s merits which enables them. Human merit is utterly dependent on Christ’s merit (Stevens 94). They are united in charity with Christ. As such, we must be in a state of grace and perform good works for the sake of charity to merit (Hardon IX).
The Catholic teaching on supernatural merit is not at odds with Christ’s merits. Rather, human merits rely on His. God rewards those who do his will in a manner similar to a human father who rewards his children for doing their duty. This is founded on both charity and justice.
In Catholic theology, merit comes in the form of condign and congruous. These are both distinct from and integral to one another. Condign merit is that which is deserved or justly due. Congruous merit is fitting or becoming, but not strictly due (Hardon IX). These can both be considered a reward for a good act, but they differ in several important ways (Stevens 94).
There is no equity between man and God in a strict sense and hence it would seem that God does not owe him anything (ST I-II Q 114 A. 3 co.). However, although he is not obligated to do so God has promised to reward man for cooperating with grace (Hardon IX). In order to merit condignly there must be a promise in addition the man must be alive, in a state of grace, and acting freely. These actions, of course, must also be good. When these conditions are fulfilled the Christian gains an increase in sanctifying grace and infused virtues (Stevens 95).
On the other hand, congruous merit can affect anyone who has attained the use of reason. Those who are not in a state of mortal sin can merit the graces needed to return to a state of grace (Hardon IX). For those who are in a state of grace, it is possible to earn merit on behalf of another such as souls in purgatory. These are not awarded out of any obligation on God’s part, but rather out of the loving mercy of God and his friendship with man (Stevens 94).
In both cases, all human merit arises from the merits of Christ and the order of divine love and mercy. Congruous merit can bring us back to justification and so be brought to the state of grace necessary to merit condignly (Stevens 95). Thus, although different, the two kinds of merit are still related to one another. Each of them helps lead us toward our final end: God Himself.
Grace is more effective in the person who is better disposed to receive it. In a similar way, any given action can be meritorious. This also applies to satisfaction and prayer (Hardon IX). Our merit may increase or decrease based on grace, will, and object.
According to Aquinas, a man may merit the increase of grace (ST I-II Q 114 A 8 co). The degree of merit we can obtain is correlated to the amount of sanctifying grace we possess (Hardon IX). As we do more good works grace grows. As grace grows our works produce more merit. Thus, we can see how grace and merit work together.
Along with grace, the purity of our intention affects merit (Hardon IX). This is both from our motives and the nobility of those motives. We merit more when our acts are done out of love for others, not out of self-interest. Additionally, the intensity of our will affects our merit. Actions are more praiseworthy when chosen completely rather than half-heartedly.
Finally, we must consider the object of our actions themselves. The excellence of virtue leads one to greater or lesser merit (Hardon IX). The practice of theological virtues has more value than moral virtues. This is also affected by the quantity, frequency, or duration of any given act (ibid). The difficulties surrounding the action can also affect it. The harder a virtue is to practice the greater love and generosity invoked in performing it.
Thus, an action can be of greater or lesser merit. It is affected by how much grace we have, the purity of our will, and the goodness of the action taken. Taken together we either merit more or less.
There are several ways that man can perform good works. They are prayer, satisfaction, and merit (Hardon IX). These are all related to one another and have benefits for the subject. Merit and satisfaction involve God’s justice whereas prayer depends primarily on God’s liberality (ibid). An action does have to be exclusively meritorious, satisfying, or impetratory; rather it could include more than one of these aspects.
In prayer, we ask God for things that we do not deserve in any sense and this is impetration (ST I-II Q. 114 A. 9 ad. 1). Thus, prayer requests a favor. This is not altogether different from congruous merit but can also be applied to those who have died (Hardon IX). Thus, all of the saints are also able to intercede and ask favor of God. On earth,we can continue to unite with the “impetratory actions of the angels and saints”, especially in the Sacrifice of the Mass (ibid).
Satisfaction regards voluntary suffering in reparation for the injuries done to God and the temporal punishment due to sin (Hardon IX). This is accomplished by good acts, done for God, in which a sinner gives up something of value. These works are penal and are a result of sin. Satisfaction differs from merit because of the element of suffering which is not present in meriting.
When we merit (condignly) God rewards us for the good that we do. When we pray God donates what we ask for. Finally, we can make satisfaction to “make up” for the wrong done to God to deepen our friendship (Hardon IX). These three are woven together in the way that man relates to God.
Hardon, John. History and Theology of Grace. Eternal Life, 2020.
Stevens, Gregory. The Life of Grace. Prentice Hall / Pearson Education, 1963. pp. 1-96, 107-110.