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History and Theology of Grace

Chapter IX

Supernatural Merit

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

One of the best examples of how a basic concept in revelation has been clarified by Christian reflection is the idea of merit. The word itself occurs nowhere in Scripture, yet the inner meaning we commonly associate with the term reaches into the dawn of God’s supernatural relations with man. In a true sense, the notion of merit is the watershed which divides Catholic Christianity from other forms of Christian belief. It distinguishes those elements of the faith that have remained constant over the centuries, even beyond Christ to the early patriarchs and prophets.

Woven into the texture of merit are such typically Catholic ideas as freedom of the will, good works, growth in sanctifying grace, the evangelical counsels, and intercessory prayer. They are neither conditions which make merit possible, or derive from meritorious actions nor assist the soul in meriting more effectively before God. A clear understanding of supernatural merit does more than educate the mind in the Christian religion; it offers motivation for fidelity in the spiritual life and, paradoxically, lie close to the center of the heroism of the saints.

Resources in Faith

While the Old Testament is less “spiritual” about retribution for good and evil deeds than the Gospels or St. Paul, there is already some notion of reward for the virtues men practice in the first books of the Bible. A cryptic verse in Genesis tells how Henoch “walked with God and was seen no longer, for God had taken him away.” [1] Since Henoch had lived in a manner particularly pleasing to God, he did not die as other people but was “taken away” as a reward for his virtue. Elias was also “taken away” riding upward in a fiery chariot. “He was taken into heaven because of his great zeal for the Law.” [2]

Those who obey the commandments of Yahweh are frequently promised “life” as a recompense for their labors, while sinners are threatened with “death” as a punishment. When Ezechiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, he was surely aware that both good and wicked men would be slain in battle, yet he promised life to those who fulfilled God’s precepts faithfully and likewise to the sinners who return to the Lord. [3] The prophets also mention a “book of the living” in which the just are inscribed and from which the godless are stricken; and though earthly blessings are first concerned, future blessings after death are not totally absent.

By the time of the Wisdom literature, the doctrine of reward for the just had developed to a point that was only shades removed from its fullness in the teachings of Christ. The author of the Book of Wisdom was almost certainly stimulated by outside influences in the Hellenic world, as he built on the truths of the past. Yet his description of the lot of those who die in God’s friendship is sharply different from Hellenism and the mystery religions of the East. Its purity is firmly rooted in the ancient prophets.

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was judged as affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of Himself. As gold in the furnace, He proved them, and as sacrificial offerings He took them to Himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; they shall judge nations and shall rule over peoples, and the Lord shall be their King forever. Those who trust in Him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with Him in love. [4]

The basic elements of merit before God are, therefore, apparent before the time of Christ. But the full flowering of its implications was not revealed until the Christian era. Eternal life, promised to those who serve God in this life, is variously called a reward, prize, crown, wages, retribution, and remuneration which the Lord will give to men according to their works. Every phase of man’s service of the Lord has an ultimate reward. Those who fast and give thanks to God, those who believe and hope in God, those who love Him and through Him their neighbor, those who avoid sin and preserve themselves from the contagion of this world, those who are willing to give up all things to follow Christ will be rewarded. [5]

In the high point of Christ’s teaching, recorded in the Gospels, a series of eight injunctions is set forth to His disciples, each of which is accompanied by a spiritual reward. After enumerating them, together with the promises attached to each, the Savior concluded: “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake. Rejoice and exult, because your reward is great in heaven.” [6]

If the reward promised to those who persevere is eternal, its measure is also conditioned on the good that a man has done before death, “when night comes and no man can work any longer.” In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Christ explains both aspects of supernatural merit: the divine sovereignty in dispensing grace in this life and glory in the next, and man’s collaboration with God’s gifts for a longer or shorter time according to the dispensation of the Lord.

St. Paul is eloquent in extolling the absolute gratuity of Christian grace and man’s complete inability to do any supernatural good without divine help. But he also recognizes the retribution which an equitable Providence has in store for those who struggle faithfully until called. “God will render to every man according to his works. Life eternal He will give to those who by patience in good works seek glory and honor and immortality.” [7] Speaking of himself, he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. For the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will give to me that day; not to me only, but also to those who love His coming.” [8]

However the most incisive apostolic witness on the necessity of good works, and their correlative merit, is St. James, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been tried, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.” [9] Always in the New Testament, those who are faithful on earth are assured blessedness in heaven; they will become the makarioi, or happy ones, which the ancient Greeks primarily applied to the gods, whom they often simply called Makares, “those in perfect bliss.” At the same time, the happiness promised was provisory and not inevitable. “Be faithful,” Christ told John in vision, “and I will give you the crown of life.” [10]

The Fathers of the Church expanded on the deposit of faith in the Scriptures, either to strengthen their own resolve to remain constant in God’s service, or to console the faithful in their trials with the security of a heavenly reward. Ignatius of Antioch pleaded with the Roman Christians not to dissuade him from martyrdom, “Allow me to be eaten by the beasts,” he wrote, “through whom I may attain to God.” [11] Another martyr, the bishop Irenaeus, observed, “precious should be to us the crown which we gain in battle; and the more we obtain it by combat, the more precious it is.” [12]

Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) appears to have been the first to use the term “merit” in describing the supernatural reward of virtue. “A good act,” he declared, “has God as its debtor, even as an act which is evil, since the Judge is a vindicator of every cause.” [13] Harnack made the incredible statement that Tertullian also first conceived the doctrine of merit. [14]

During the Pelagian conflict, Augustine wrote at length about the reward that awaits us if we rightly use the gifts of divine grace. God, he says, “gave us of His mercy, He will crown us in return. He is the donor of forgiveness, and the debtor of a crown. How can He be debtor? Did He receive something? The Lord made Himself debtor, not by receiving but by promising. We cannot say to Him, ‘Return what You received,’ but ‘Grant us what You promised.’” [15] In the next century, the Council of Orange (A.D. 529) canonized a statement by St. Augustine, to the effect that “Reward is due to good works, if they are done; but grace, which is not due, must precede that good works might be done.” [16] Thus even in the heat of Pelagianism, which insisted uniquely on merit without grace, the Church never lost sight of the law of divine remuneration by which God committed Himself to repay our efforts in corresponding with His will.

In the Middle Ages, the Schoolmen built on the patristic tradition a system of merit that has remained substantially the same to the present day. Two underlying principles supported the structure: that God rewards our good deeds supernaturally provided they are done from the infused virtue of charity, and that the faculty by which we merit is the free will. In a crisp sentence, St. Thomas summarized the doctrine. “Merit is attributed to charity, because the will, which charity perfects, is the first mover in the performance of meritorious works.” [17] Consequently, “any deliberate action without exception done in the state of grace is meritorious.” [18]

With the advent of the Reformation, with its theory of man’s loss of spiritual freedom, the traditional doctrine of merit was charged with being against the Scriptures, and men like Peter Lombard and Aquinas were said to have corrupted the plain teaching of the word of God. In a lengthy treatise of his Institutes, under title of “Boasting about the merits of works destroys our praise of God,” Calvin laid the foundations for the classic Protestant position on meritorious actions. He regretted that the term “merit” had ever entered the Christian vocabulary. “How much offense this term contains is clear from the great damage it has done to the world. Surely, as it is a most prideful term, it can do nothing but obscure God’s favor and imbue men with perverse arrogance.” [19]

He admitted that the ancient writers of the Church “commonly used it, and would that they had not given posterity occasion for error by their misuse of one little word.’ Then he proceeds to expound what he thinks the Fathers should have said if they had been more cautious.

Scripture shows what all our works deserve when it states that they cannot bear God’s gaze because they are full of uncleanness. What, then, will the perfect observance of the law deserve, if any such can be found, when Scripture enjoins us to consider ourselves unprofitable servants even when we do everything required of us? For to the Lord we have given nothing unrequired, but have only carried out services owed, for which no thanks are due.
There is no doubt that whatever is praiseworthy in works is God’s grace; there is not a drop that we ought by rights to ascribe to ourselves. If we truly and earnestly recognize this, not only will all confidence in merit vanish, but the very notion. We are not dividing the credit for good works between God and man, as the Sophists do, but we are preserving it whole, complete, and unimpaired for the Lord. To man we assign only this: that he pollutes and contaminates by his impurity those very things which were good. For nothing proceeds from a man, however perfect he be, that is not defiled.
Let the Lord, then, call to judgment the best in human works; He will indeed recognize in them His own righteousness but man’s dishonor and shame. [20]

All the major confession of the Reformation said the same thing, that any tinge of merit for our good works is derogation from the goodness of God. “To Him alone the glory,” was not only a passing slogan; it was the avowed conviction that man contributes nothing of his own on the road to salvation, but is literally carried on the wings of the Most High.

It is small wonder, then, that the Council of Trent should have decreed so much on the question of merit from every angle that was challenged by the Reformers. Yet before delineating on what we deserve after being justified, it was important to clarify our naked condition before the infusion of divine love. We are justified freely, the Council declared, “in the sense that nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor good works, merits the grace of justification for ’if out of grace,’ then not in virtue of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.” [21]

That being granted, however, “when faith cooperates along with their works, the justified increase in the very justice which they have received through the grace of Christ and are justified the more, as it is written, ’He that is just, let him be just still.’” [22] For this reason, the Church begs the Lord in her prayers and liturgy, to “give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity.” These virtues are not static possessions, but dynamic powers that grow in vitality with supernatural exercise.

With this in mind, those who are in the state of grace, whether they never lost it, or, having fallen, returned to God’s friendship, should be confident that their labor has not been in vain.

Eternal life should therefore be set before those who persevere in good works to the end and who hope in God. It should be set before them as being the grace that God, through Jesus Christ, has mercifully promised His sons, and as the reward which, according to the promise of God Himself, must assuredly be given them for their good works and merits.
They may be regarded as having truly merited the eternal life they will certainly attain in due time (if they but die in the state of grace), because Christ our Savior says, “He who drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst, but it will become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.” [23]

Christ has promised that a person who gives a drink of water to one of His least children will not be without a reward; and St. Paul taught that our present light affliction, which is for the moment, prepares for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond measure. Nevertheless, although Scripture sets such a high value on good works, “a Christian should have no inclination either to rely on himself or to glory in himself instead of in the Lord, whose goodness toward all men is such that He wants His gifts to be their merits.” [24] Moreover, since in many things we all offend, we should keep in mind as well the justice and severity of God as His goodness and mercy for whatever good we may have done.

Consistent with their principles, Baius and the Jansenists would not admit the existence of merit which derives from the autonomous will cooperating with divine grace. For Baius, “good works, performed by the sons of adoption are meritorious, not because they are performed by the spirit of adoption dwelling in the hearts of the sons of God, but only because they conform to the law, and manifest obedience to the law.” [25] Since he denied true elevation of man’s nature to the supernatural level, he also said it was Pelagian to claim that our good works do not merit heaven unless we are in the state of grace. [26]

His disciple Jansenius stressed the other side of the same theory, that whatever merit means it does not require true internal liberty to gain, on the prior assumption that we have lost the spiritual freedom that man enjoyed before the fall. “To merit or demerit,” for Jansenius, “in the state of fallen nature, it is not necessary for man to have freedom from necessity, but only freedom from constraint.” [27] This was an oblique way of stating that we have no genuine freedom of indifference, but only absence of external coercion, which, under the circumstances, is enough to “merit” or “demerit” before God.

Since the Council of Trent and the transit of continental Jansenism, the Catholic doctrine on merit has seen its largest development in the theology of the Church and the Communion of Saints. As the social character of Christianity became more prominent, the corresponding function of merit beyond oneself and for the benefit of others grew in importance until now it may be called a dominant feature of the Church’s teaching. The encyclicals of Benedict XV on the missions, of Pius XI on the Sacred Heart, of Pius XII on the Mystical Body, John XXIII on Christian Unity, and several encyclicals of John Paul II, have one theme in common: that the faithful are called upon to labor, pray, and suffer, by communicating their merits in union with those of Christ their Head for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Concept and Variety

Medieval theologians under St. Thomas took the biblical notion of merit as a reward and analyzed its meaning in terms of justice and free will. “A man merits in as much as he does what he ought, by his free will; otherwise the act of justice whereby anyone discharges a debt would not be meritorious.” [28]

The immediate problem that demanded solution was how we can be said to merit before God when all that we have and possess, and all our hope for the future, come to us from Him. In ordinary human relations, there is some equality between the man who does a good work and the one who repays him for his efforts. But between God and man there is the greatest inequality, since they are infinitely distant and all that man has is from God. Yet there is a solid basis for merit with God because, where other creatures attain their destiny necessarily, we do freely by choosing to use the means assigned us by the Creator as a condition for reaching the goal He set before us. “A rational creature moves itself to act by its own free will, hence its action has the character of merit, which is not so in other creatures.” [29] They cannot be praised for acting nor blamed for refusing to act the way they do, whereas we deserve praise or censure—along with reward or punishment—according to our response to the will of God. We certainly owe the Creator our most dedicated service and perfect compliance with His commands, and in doing all this we are fulfilling a debt. At the same time, our service is not coercive and we are physically free to render it or not; if we do so, God has freely bound Himself to reward our generosity.

Taken existentially, merit is any morally good work deserving of reward. It implies that the action is somehow beneficial or honorable to another, and therefore calls for retribution from him either in justice or out of propriety. In theory, merit is the right or title to a reward, or that quality of a human act which makes it worthy of compensation. However that is not enough, because in addition to its worthiness the action must be recognized and accepted as meritorious by the person in whose favor I performed it. This has special relevance to our dealings with God, who rewards our deeds according to His judgment of what we do conducive to His glory; His recognition and acceptation are paramount, and ultimately determine the quality of merit in our practice of virtue.

In every good work performed by a person in the state of grace we may distinguish three moral effects that differ considerably, although in certain respects they overlap. It will first of all be meritorious, namely graced with that quality which gives it a claim to reward. It will also be satisfactory, to the extent to which it repairs the offenses committed against God or removes some of the temporal punishment still due for past sins. It will finally be impetratory, in so far as the divine liberality is moved by the action to confer the benefits for which God is asked.

Consequently although the same act of virtue may be simultaneously meritorious, satisfactory and impetratory, each aspect has its own relationship to God. Merit looks to Him as rewarder and the action is deserving of recompense. Satisfaction placates His justice and presupposes an offense has been committed. Impetration successfully entreats the divine goodness and love.

These aspects are too closely related to be adequately distinguished without applying the familiar distinction between two kinds of merit, the condign (de condigno) and the congruous (de congruo). Synonymous with condign is deserved, adequate, justly due; and with congruous that which is fitting or becoming. On the difference between the two rests the whole theology of supernatural reward.

Merit is condign when there is a certain equality between the work done and its compensation, which may be reduced to a kind of demand in justice. In human affairs such merit establishes a clear and undisputed claim to a just return for service rendered. The recompense must be given because of a previous contract or promise, and to withhold it would be injustice. In our relations with God we cannot assert such absolute claim on His equity, because whatever we do is itself a gift from Him. Nevertheless, God has obligated Himself by a solemn covenant, in view of the merits of Christ, to bestow rewards in heaven and on earth in proportion to our fidelity to His will. As adopted sons of God and joint heirs with the Savior, we are able to merit heaven condignly with a positive title to the “wages” we earn in keeping the commandments. [30]

Congruous merit implies no previous contract or agreement, but only the kindness and generosity of the donor. Thus an employer may give his workmen a liberal bonus over and above their regular salary, not because they have a right to it but because he wants to show his appreciation of their services. Their salary would be merited condignly, whereas anything beyond would be gained congruously. Propriety suggests that employers occasionally favor their workmen with some evidence of good will; but if they fail to do so, they have not violated justice or done wrong to their employees.

In a comparable way God acts towards us in the supernatural order. Certain actions we perform He regards as worthy of merit in justice, which He has bound Himself to honor and on which we can depend with the surety of God’s word. Others He prefers to consider dependent on His promise, perhaps, but not in justice. Thus a sinner making an act of perfect love congruously merits the state of grace, with something more than divine propriety but something less than strict equity. God does not owe him the grace of justification, but in His mercy has promised to infuse it under specified conditions and will be infallibly true to His promise.

Under less specified conditions, even though no formal promise has been made, we may still speak of congruous merit where the hope of receiving a benefit from God is not fidelity to His plighted word but the bonds of friendship with a soul in sanctifying grace. Such would be the guarantee of final perseverance in answer to humble prayer. The least favorable situation obtains in the case of a sinner estranged from God but still with some title to receiving aid when he prays or otherwise disposes himself to call upon the divine mercy. Theologians have coined the term fallible congruous merit to cover all such cases where the motive attributed to God is not faithfulness to His eternal pledge but liberality to all, even sinners, who invoke His name.

Requisite Conditions

Keeping in mind the distinction between condign and congruous merit, the conditions required for each are correspondingly different. We may easily dispose of the latter because they are so minimal and obvious. In order to merit congruously, all that is necessary is that the act performed should be freely placed and not, for example, a pure reflex or thoughtless gesture; that it be morally good, since sinful conduct “merits,” indeed, but in reverse; that the one meriting be still a wayfarer in this life, because no one can merit in any sense after death; and, most important, that supernatural grace be the driving power behind the action, for without true internal grace (whether actual or habitual) it is impossible to speak of merit of any kind.

Condign merit has requisite conditions attached on all sides: on the part of God that He has made a promise to that effect; on our part that we are still mortal, in the state of grace, and acting with complete human liberty. Further the action we perform must be morally good, and indifferent acts, if such exist, cannot be meritorious.

In the practical order, the conditions that affect us personally are the most pertinent. First of all, to be able to merit we must be still on probation in this life, since there can be no reward for good works after death. “It is appointed unto man once to die,” wrote St. Paul, “and after this the judgment.” [31] And the Council of Trent defined that the souls in purgatory are “outside the state of meriting or increasing in charity.” [32] Christ Himself spoke of working while it is still day, before the night comes, when no man works.

We must also be in the state of grace. In the words of Trent, “nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification”; and conversely, once a man enters into God’s friendship he has the basis on which to claim heaven as his right if he perseveres. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you abide in me.” [33] Unless we are united by theological charity with God and have Him dwelling in our souls, we lack the principle of supernatural merit in much the same way that a dead man cannot earn a wage. In order to deserve a heavenly reward we must be adopted sons of God, living with His life and operating on the same level by grace where He lives by nature. “If we are sons, we are heirs also,” and the relation between the two, sonship and inheritance, is strictly casual; without the one there can be no promise of the other.

The inherent freedom needed to merit strictly before God follows on the divine option given us to serve Him with perfect liberty. When the rich young man asked Christ, “Good Master, what good work shall I do to have eternal life,” the Lord answered him simply, “if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” [34] The force of this injunction is lost in English. The Greek original has ei de theleis “if you want to,” which expresses a voluntary choice between two opposites, either to keep the divine precepts and reach heaven, or refuse to do so and fail to enter eternal life. Spiritual psychology confirms this condition, since no one deserves to be rewarded (or punished) except for something that he himself did. If we examine our possessions, nothing is so uniquely our own as our free will, so that only what we offer God freely deserves to be praised (and rewarded) by Him as meritorious.

It would belabor the obvious to stress that only good actions receive merit, since the whole construct of man’s salvation is based on the assumption that we are free agents capable of choosing between good and evil according to the will of God. Less clear is the position of some theologians who say that no action is condignly meritorious unless performed under the influence of supernatural charity. The trouble with the theory is that it can lead to some embarrassing practical consequences.

Such is the primacy of charity, it is said, that the raison d’être of merit consists in this virtue as its absolute and ultimate ground. [35] St. Thomas is quoted that “the precept of charity contains the injunction that God should be loved from our whole heart, which means that all things should be referred to God. Consequently man cannot fulfill the precept of charity unless he refers all things to God.” [36] From this and like statements in the Fathers it is argued that the infused virtue of charity must have a positive influx in our good actions at the risk of losing their promised reward.

The most extreme demands require what is called a virtual flow of charity in our good works. This means that a previous act of charity continues effectively in what we are doing, although we are not necessarily conscious of this motivation when performing the good work. At the other end of the spectrum the majority of theologians believe it is enough to be in the state of grace and appeal to such authorities as Francis de Sales and Robert Bellarmine.

In practice, however, it makes no difference—or should not—unless the issue is misunderstood. Even the extremists who want a virtual intention flowing from charity into our good works allow that any previous act of charity will suffice, unless impeded by some disorder in the act, i.e., by a sinful element that implicitly erases the pure intention previously made.

Scope of Meritorious Actions

On its negative side, a person in the state of grace cannot strictly merit the gift of final perseverance, which is a special gift that God reserves to Himself and yet promises to grant those who pray for it. [37] With this exception, however, we are able condignly to merit for ourselves the reward of eternal life, an increase in the beatitude which this heavenly reward implies, and, on earth, a growth in sanctifying grace with its concomitant virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Condign Merit

Nothing is clearer in the Scripture and the Church’s tradition than the certainty of meriting heaven if we die in the love of God. But we not only gain heaven by our good works; we also determine the degree of happiness we will experience in the beatific vision—according to our greater or lesser correspondence with grace on earth. “The Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will render to everyone according to his conduct.” [38] Or, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, “each will receive his own reward according to his labor.” [39] Augustine explains the “many mansions” in heaven and the “full day’s wage” paid to the laborers in the vineyard as descriptive of the two levels of celestial beatitude: the one absolute, which is common to all the blessed in their possession of God, symbolized by the denarius that all the workmen of the parable received, even those at the eleventh hour, and the other relative, which differs for each man depending on his works.

Although one person may be stronger than another, or wiser, or more righteous, or more holy, “in the Father’s house are many mansions.” No one will be estranged from that place, where a home awaits every one according to what he deserves. True, they all equally receive the wage which the Householder commands to be given all who have worked in the vineyard. He makes no distinction between those who labored less and others who labored more. Their wages signify eternal life, where none lives more than another, because life has no degrees of measure in eternity.
But the mansions signify the various dignities of merit in the one eternal life. “For there is one glory of the sun, another of the moon, another of the stars, for one star differs from another in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.” [40]

St. Augustine illustrates the Church’s tradition on still another point. By our good works on earth we merit varying degrees of the essential joy of heaven, which is the intuitive vision of the Trinity. At the same time, we also determine the measure of what are called the accidental joys, that are neither few nor insignificant.

Accidental happiness is enjoyed by the blessed through their company with Christ in His human nature, with the Mother of God, the angels and saints; through their reunion with families and former friends from their earthly life; through their knowledge of the created works of God. Moreover the union of the soul with the transfigured body at the resurrection means an accidental increase of heavenly glory.

After the general judgment, therefor, “there will remain two cities, each with its own boundaries—the one Christ’s, the other the devil’s; the one embracing the good, the other the bad, with both consisting of angels and men. Among the former some will outrank others in bliss, and among the latter some will have a more bearable portion of misery than others.” [41] Thus the divine equity follows mankind into heaven as well as hell, with happiness or suffering meted out with justice to the saved as well as damned.

In anticipation of heavenly glory, we also merit condignly an increase in sanctifying grace by our virtuous conduct. [42] “Set free from sin and become slaves of God, you have your fruit unto sanctification,” the Romans were told by St. Paul. [43] And once justified, we are no longer children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, but should “practice the truth in love, and so grow up in all things in Him who is the head, Christ. For from Him the whole body derives its increase to the building up of itself in love.” [44]

Good works promote every phase of habitual grace in the soul. The supernatural life of God is deepened in all its manifestation; faith becomes more clear and secure, hope more trustful and firm, and charity more fervent; the moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are made stronger; the gifts of the Holy Spirit intensify, and the indwelling is more profound; friendship with God grows in intimacy and the sense of divine sonship takes on a familiarity that only experience can prove. “Let us understand that he who loves has the Holy Spirit, and by having merits to have Him more, and by having Him more to love Him more.” [45]

Congruous Merit

The scope of congruous merit extends to the farthest reaches of a man’s life, and affects all persons who have attained the use of reason since it does not require the state of grace to be gained.

As might be expected, there is quite a difference between the generosity with which God responds to the good works of those in His friendship and those estranged from Him by grave sin. Only people in the state of grace can merit for others. One possible exception is gaining indulgences for the souls in purgatory. A few writers maintain that indulgences can be earned for the deceased even by persons in mortal sin, but their opinion is hardly probable and clearly opposed to the teaching of St. Thomas. However it would be enough that the state of grace be present before the end of the prescribed indulgenced work or prayer.

Sinners in mortal sin can merit congruously the graces they need to dispose themselves for returning to the divine friendship. The further question as to whether, being contrite, they also merit the actual justification is disputed among theologians, with the majority holding it to be possible under certain conditions, notably the outstanding merits before a man sinned gravely. Out of regard for these previous good deeds, according to Suarez, “God arouses the sinner to bring him out of his sin.” [46]

The gift of final perseverance is in a class by itself. While a man is not in the state of grace we can hardly speak of him meriting to die in a condition he does not possess; at most he can dispose himself to receive efficacious graces to rise from the status in which he lives. But even the righteous merit the grace of dying a happy death only in the qualified sense of impetrating (by effective petition) what they have no right to, and what has not even been formally promised (to this individual) but rests ultimately on divine liberality in favor of those who love God.

Sanctifying grace enables a man to merit for himself and others the manifold graces that he and they need on the road to heaven. If it is surprising that our good works should obtain supernatural light and inspiration for other people as well as ourselves, we remember that “a man in grace fulfills the will of God, so it is congruous and in harmony with friendship that God should fulfill man’s desire for the salvation of another. Of course there may sometimes be an impediment on the part of the one whose salvation the just man desires.” [47] The one limitation is that we cannot merit the first actual grace in the process of justification for ourselves or anyone else, because without such grace no kind of merit is conceivable.

In the economy of God’s mercy, the just man can earn temporal benefits for himself and others, in so far as the Lord foresees they are conducive to the spiritual welfare of those who receive them. The Psalmist makes no exception. “Revere the Lord, you His saints. They lack nothing, those who revere Him. Strong men suffer want and go hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no blessing.” [48] In the same strain, Christ enjoined that we should first seek the Kingdom of God and His justice, and “all these things will be added unto you.”

Prayer, Satisfaction, and Merit

Theologians sometimes speak of merit in a way that seems to melt the distinction between meritorious actions and those which are reparative or impetratory. They describe the fruits of merit in this life as augmentative (increasing sanctifying grace), auxiliary (obtaining actual graces), satisfactory (remitting guilt and punishment due to sin), and impetratory (effectively petitioning divine help). The value of clearing up the concepts should be to better appreciate the dignity of merit and its universal application to every supernatural contingency. Otherwise there is a risk of supposing that certain actions are somehow not meritorious, or at least the connection with merit may be hazy.

There is no problem regarding the augmentative and auxiliary fruits of merit, as explained above. The question is this. How are satisfaction and impetration related to merit? To what extent do their elements interweave, and how are they different?

Impetration and Merit

This is less complicated because the relationship between merit and impetration has been more fully developed. St. Thomas, in writing on the subject, says that “we impetrate in prayer things that we do not merit, since God hears sinners who beseech the pardon of their sins, which they do not merit.” [49] In context he is talking about a person meriting the grace of final perseverance, which he declares is impossible, even for a just man, let alone a sinner. Evidently he refers to condign merit, and therefore holds that impetration and condign merit are not the same thing.

We further know that “impetration pertains to that which is requested and rests on favor (mercy and liberality) alone, whereas merit pertains to the end that a person earns and derives from justice.” [50] Thus impetration looks to the person of whom a favor is asked, while merit looks to the intrinsic value of the work done. In one case what a man receives is the result of divine bounty, in the other of God’s equity, He owes us what we merit, He donates what we impetrate.

But if impetration is radically different from condign merit, is it also different from congruous? Yes, and no, according to the viewpoint.

The principal difference between merit and impetration is that the former applies only to persons on earth (in via) whereas impetration is possible also after death. Christ our Lord in His humanity, the Blessed Virgin, the angels and blessed in heaven, and the souls of the faithful departed pray and intercede before God and thus impetrate, i.e., obtain favors in answer to their petition. “Jesus has become surety of a superior covenant,” we read. “He has an everlasting priesthood because He continues forever. Therefore He is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him, since He lives always to make intercession for us.” [51] The same, in due measure, applies to all the saints, whose time of merit ceased at their entrance into eternity but whose power of petition is continually active.

Shifting the focus to ourselves, we can unite ourselves with the impetratory actions of the angels and saints, but especially with those of Christ in the Sacrifice of the Mass. We can merit graces for ourselves and others as a consequence. From the perspective of Christ the value of the Mass is infinite and has infinite capacity of impetration, but its effect in us is not only finite but also depends on our dispositions. We gain more or less of the graces obtainable according to the general norms which determine supernatural merit.

Moreover we combine impetration and merit in a single function every time we obtain a heavenly favor in answer to formal prayer. From the aspect of our petition to which God gave a favorable reply, it was impetration; from the standpoint of God’s rewarding our supernatural act of praying, it was congruous merit. Indeed all our prayers in the state of grace are meritorious and, when heard, may be equated with merit which looks to the divine liberality for its motive and power.

Finally the concept of impetration (and corresponding merit) should not be limited to formal prayers of petition. For it is quite possible to make all the actions of the day implicit requests of God, provided we have somehow directed our intentions to that purpose. The most familiar practice of this kind is the Morning Offering of the Apostleship of Prayer, approves and encouraged by the Church. In this prayer we offer “all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day,” for a host of petitions that we unite with the Sacrifice of the Mass. Thus all the requests of the members of the Apostleship, the numerous intentions for each day and month, and the specified intentions of the Holy Father are being petitioned throughout the day. The prayer encompasses every detailed action we perform, even though constant and conscious advertence to this intercession is impossible, and therefor theologically unnecessary.


While prayer, merit, and satisfaction comprehend the whole of our good works, prayer is distinct from the other two because its effective value depends on the divine liberality, whereas merit and satisfaction mainly refer to God’ justice and therefor have much in common, although they also differ widely.

In general, satisfaction means the voluntary undergoing of pain in order to compensate for the injury done to God by sin, and to remit the temporal punishment ordinarily due after sins have been forgiven.

Satisfactory works are necessarily penal, which follows on the nature of sin. After a man sins he remains guilty of the wrong committed. Consequently “the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pays some sort of penal compensation which restores him to the equality of justice. In accordance with divine equity, a person who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish.” [52]

St. Thomas requires three qualities for satisfaction, namely that the act performed be morally good, done for the honor of God “and penal. So that by it the sinner be deprived of something.” [53] However it does not mean that whatever lessens the penalty or painful part of a satisfactory deed necessarily lowers the worth of his reparation. On the contrary, a person who more readily performs penance because of his readiness under the impulse of love for God increases the value of his satisfaction rather than lessens it.

Another difference, therefore, between merit and satisfaction is that the latter implies some element of pain or retrenchment, which merit, as such, does not require. Of course the same action may be simultaneously meritorious and satisfactory. Insofar as it satisfies the conditions of merit, it earns an increase of heavenly glory and sanctifying grace; and to the extent to which it meets the requirements of satisfaction it remits guilt and temporal punishment due for the sins committed.

This retrenchment, which must be at least objective, has to be voluntarily undergone, since satisfaction is a kind of active redemption, i.e., actively cooperating with the divine Redemption of which all men are the passive recipients. Thus we may patiently accept the trials and difficulties that God sends or assume certain works or practices that call for self-sacrifice.

It would be wrong, however, to suppose that some kind of infliction must be added to make an act satisfactory. The intrinsic effort expended in performing acts of virtue is enough; and then circumstances of time, place, personality, and duration will make further demands of sacrifice. Thus we have an immolation of intellect in acts of faith, of the will in obedience, of self-love when we love God and our neighbor, of the flesh in temperance and chastity, of the whole man in the observance of the precepts and evangelical counsels. Such immolation covers the complex of our lives, from the acceptance of a passing difficulty to the generous undertaking of great works for the glory of God.

Moreover, satisfaction differs from ordinary merit by reason of its purpose or function. It is directed to make good the offenses committed against the Creator. In place of turning away from God which characterizes sin, the sinner (or someone else for him) turns to God with sorrow for having offended the divine majesty, seeks to make up with love for ingratitude, and so obtains mercy from the Lord who invites sinners to repentance. The effects of this internal reparation may be the grace of conversion for oneself or another, or if the sins have already been forgiven, a deepening of divine friendship between the soul and God.

Closely connected with the preceding is the role of satisfaction to remit the punishment that sin brings in its wake. By placating the divine justice, we can be spared the sanctions that God inevitably visits on sinners in this life and in the next. Temporal punishments due to sin normally remain after forgiveness and, unless we expiate them, they will come to us unbidden as a purification or purgation in this life or after death.

The tie-in between sin and penalty is divinely ordained. “All punishment is just and inflicted for sin.” [54] We suffer either for our own sins or for the sins of others. Vicarious suffering is familiar from human affairs, where we see one man undertake repayment of another’s debt; and so in the spiritual order. We can volunteer to make expiation for other people’s sins. In this way, altruistic satisfaction is not unlike altruistic merit; we obtain for another a remission or amelioration of the suffering he deserved for offending God. The whole idea of reparation to the Sacred Heart and suffrages for the souls in purgatory are built on this theological premise.

As might be expected, the Reformers had no sympathy with the idea that guilt can be removed without all the punishment being erased at the same time. Since they made fiducial faith the only remissive element in justification, they consistently held that all penalty, eternal and temporal, is remitted whenever a person is justified. Satisfaction in their vocabulary was useless, if not positively insulting to God’s mercy—as though He would forgive a man’s guilt without also removing all debt of punishment. The Reformation prejudice against indulgences and the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice arose from these principles.

Taking issue with the Reformers, Trent examined and defined at length the subject of satisfactory merits. We may not say that “after receiving the grace of justification, the guilt of any repentant sinner is remitted and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such a way that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this life or in purgatory, before the gate to the kingdom of heaven can be opened.” [55]

In describing the varieties of satisfaction we can offer for past sins, the Council distinguished three levels: the penances sent from God and patiently endured; the penance imposed by the priest in sacramental confession; and “the penances voluntarily undertaken, such as fasts, prayers, almsgiving, or other works of piety.” [56] Each is effective in its own way, and has its own relationship to merit.

The penitential providence of trials which God sends has been the theme of ascetical writers since before the time of Christ. “A great anxiety has God allotted, and a heavy yoke, to the sons of men. From the day one leaves his mother’s womb to the day he returns to the mother of all living, his thoughts, the fear in his heart, and his troubled forebodings till the day he dies.” [57] In the divine plan, these sufferings are meant to be expiatory, provided we accept them patiently from the hands of God as instruments of purification, to appease His offended justice and spare ourselves and others more grievous pains in the future.

Sacramental satisfaction is imposed by the priest in the confessional and, according to common practice, fulfilled after absolution. When the Jansenists held otherwise, that a person may not be absolved until he had satisfied a long and rigorous penance, they were condemned by the Church. [58] Unique among the works of satisfaction, the penance performed in connection with the sacraments has ex opere operato efficacy. Its fruitfulness, in other words, depends directly on the “power of the keys” and not on the dispositions of the priest or penitent. Provided there is no obstacle, as when a person commits a mortal sin subsequent to absolution and before he performs his penance, the satisfactory power of the satisfaction takes effect—though naturally more or less remissive according to the penitent’s dispositions. [59]

Most writers, including St. Thomas, hold that all our good works take on ex opere operato satisfactory value from the sacrament of confession. Among the reasons adduced is the Church’s ritual practice, after absolution, to have the priest pronounce a penitential formula. “May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatever good you do or evil sustain, be to you unto the remission of sins, and increase of grace, and the reward of eternal life. Amen.” [60]

The most familiar kind of satisfaction is the one we freely undertake over and above the perennial trials, and distinct from the short penance said after confession. Trent singled out for special mention, fasting, prayers, and almsgiving—which Christian tradition has favored since apostolic times. Bellarmine explains why this triad summarized the penitential spirit. “One reason is that we should satisfy, as far as possible, through such things as are most completely our own.” By sinning we claimed what was really not ours; so by satisfaction we deprive self in order to honor God. “We have three kinds of possessions: of soul, which we give by our prayers; of body, that we give Him through fasting; and of external good that we offer by giving alms. Another reason is that all vices can be reduced to the three mentioned by the apostle John: concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life. Fasting restrains concupiscence, almsgiving the concupiscence of the eyes, which is avarice, and prayer controls the pride of life.” [61]

Viewed from the aspect of merit, the penance we offer by voluntary deprivation has the power of increasing sanctifying grace in the soul and thereby restoring (or even going beyond) the degree of supernatural friendship enjoyed by a soul before it offended God. It also has the efficacy of lessening or entirely cancelling the debt of punishment owed for past sins, not the least of which is the loss of those actual graces which God would have given to the sinner had he not committed sin. God would not have restore these graces except that the sinner satisfied the liability he incurred by his disobedience.

Everything dispossessive in our lives can assume satisfactory value. Prayer is generic for that radical self-immolation in which we acknowledge our basic contingency and utter dependence upon God, the only source of happiness and the fulfillment of all our desires. Fasting is generic for all bodily mortification and self-control, to be exercised in the very act of standing or walking and, under the influence of the will, affecting every motion and voluntary gesture of the body. Almsgiving is generic for every practice of charity, from sharing material things like money to giving another of the spiritual gifts we possess.

Perhaps more should be made of outgoing charity as a most salutary form of satisfaction. “Above all things,” wrote St. Peter, “have a constant mutual charity among yourselves; for charity covers a multitude of sins.” [62] It repairs, through the love of God which animates it, for the lack of love that lies at the root of sin. It calls upon humility to compensate for pride; generosity to make up for self-indulgence, patience to atone for anger, effort to redress for indolence, and possibly pain to amend for sinful pleasure. “Your own profit,” wrote Chrysostom, “lies in the profit of your neighbor, and his in yours.” [63] The mutual charity that men show one another is not only constructive of a healthy society, it is supernaturally expiatory.

The duty of making reparation for sin allows of no exception. “All men are obliged to make reparation,” declared Pius XI, because all have sinned.

It is true that the proud philosophers of this world deny this truth, resurrecting in its stead the ancient heresy of Pelagius, which conceded to human nature a certain inborn goodness that, by our own powers, lifts us up to ever higher levels of perfection. Born of human pride, these false theories were condemned by the Apostle who warns us that, “we were by nature children of wrath.”
As a matter of history since the beginning of the world men have recognized, in one way or another, the duty of making reparation. Impelled by a kind of natural instinct, they have tried to placate the Deity by offering Him public sacrifices. [64]

What reason itself suggests, revelation confirms, that our sinful nature calls for atonement, to repay the honor due to God and repair the injury done to mankind, individually and collectively, by the accumulation of constant sin.

As with merit, so in satisfaction, we offer the expiatory value of our good works for ourselves as well as for others. In much the same way, the satisfaction we offer for ourselves, in the state of grace, is condign and due to us with that justice by which God has freely bound Himself. “Be converted to me with all your heart,” He said through the prophet, “and turn to the Lord your God. For He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil.” [65] Vicarious satisfaction, however, is congruous, and depends on the divine mercy exclusively, along with the dispositions it meets in the person from whom reparation is offered.

Indulgences are distinctively important. “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” [66]

Historically indulgences were already begin granted in apostolic times. From the first to about the seventh century, they appeared under the guise of a mitigation of public penance or a partial remission of the canonical penance imposed by the Church according to the gravity of the crime. Mitigation was necessary in view of the severities prescribed. A penitential of the seventh century ordered that “a man whose child dies on account of neglect without Baptism shall do penance for three years; in the first with bread and water, in the other two without delicacies and without marital relations.” And “he who gives a blow to his neighbor without doing him any harm, shall do penance on bread and water one or two or three forty-day periods.” [67] Other sins and faults were to be expiated accordingly, but the practice became unmanageable, not only because the penances were extreme but their number and variety (several thousand) made application often impossible.

A significant feature of their mitigation was the reason for granting such “indulgences.” They were offered to the faithful “in view of the merits of the martyrs,” whose intercession with God even before death, was to supply for the external penances of their fellow members in the Church. The principle involved has more than historical interest, since it forms the basis for the idea that a short prayer or visit to the Blessed Sacrament is equivalent to one hundred days, or several years of expiatory value of the ancient canonical penance.

Hence comes the respect that indulgences have always enjoyed among Christians. Private works of satisfaction, especially for the Poor Souls, depend mainly on the dispositions of the one who does them; but joined to an indulgence they draw on the treasury of the Mystical Body, where the whole Church, Head and members, contribute in a special way to the efficacy of the good work performed.

Difference and Increase

Christ Himself indicated the difference in merit between the actions of two persons when he commented on the rich who were putting their gifts into the treasury of the temple, in contrast with the poor widow who contributed only two mites. “Truly I say to you,” He remarked, “this poor widow has put in more than all. For all these out of their abundance have put in as gifts to God; but she out of her want has put in all that she had to live on.” [68]

The norms which determine how much merit accrues from a given action apply equally to prayers and works of satisfaction, since the same principle obtains in all of man’s relations with God. St. Thomas analyzed the norms on the basis of the nature of merit, which derives from the elements that constitute it. He is speaking of condign merit and, by analogy, of condign satisfaction.

Since merit does not consist in a habit but in act, and not in any kind of act but in one animated by the state of grace; since moreover every meritorious act proceeds from the will—merit therefor must receive something from grace, something from the will, and something from the object of the action, whence the type of act is determined. Consequently we can measure the efficacy of merit from these three factors: from grace, the will and object.
For as an act is informed by greater charity and grace, it is to that extent more meritorious; also the more voluntary is an act, the more it has of the essence of merit and is more praiseworthy; and finally, the more arduous is an object, the higher is the merit of the act—though the comparison is always understood about one of these factors, with the others being taken as equal. However the fact that something arduous increases the degree of merit does not arise from the difficulty but from the dignity of the labor; for the more sublime a thing, the more it is beyond the reach of a man’s efforts. [69]

Theologians and spiritual writers have used these principles to develop a system of values that are the common possession of Christian asceticism. They usually combine the first two norms of St. Thomas into one, as “conditions on the part of the one who merits,” and take the third alone, as “conditions on the part of the act itself.” Minor differences of theological opinion will be transmitted, most of which can be resolved by keeping in mind the proviso laid down by Aquinas, that no single factor ipso facto increases that total merit of any given action we perform. But taken singly each element contributes to the whole meritorious value. A man may have more grace at the time he places a salutary act, but may perform it more sluggishly than someone else who has less of the divine life. Again, an act of temperance, which is lower in the scale of virtues than theological charity, may be more meritorious in a given instance than an act of love, because the will behind the exercise was greater. In other words, the norms of increase in supernatural merit are to be understood objectively, so that, other things being equal. The factor in question intensifies our merit before God.

Determining Factors in the Person

The most influential element which determines the degree of merit (and satisfaction) is the possession of sanctifying grace. Hence, ceteris paribus, the more habitual grace we possess, the greater is our power of meriting. Underlying this norm is the idea of “personal dignity,” that explains many otherwise mysterious things in the spiritual life. As we know from human experience, the value of an action depends in great measure on the dignity of the one who performs it, and on the esteem that we and others have of the person in question. In the supernatural order, nothing excels the dignity of a soul in the state of grace, and, from all we know of the Church’s teaching, God looks with favor on a person according to the amount of His own life which the soul possesses.

Accordingly if we possess a higher degree of divine indwelling, we are worth more in the eyes of God. Our actions are more agreeable to Him and to that extent more meritorious. One feature of this principle is that it increases merit by geometric proportion. As our good works multiply, sanctifying grace grows apace; and as grace intensifies, the same good works become productive of greater merit.

Besides, this intensity of divine life will normally exert a corresponding influence on our actions. Apart from the idea of “personal dignity” before God, the whole complexus of possessing a deeper faith, stronger hope, and more ardent charity conspires to improve the quality of what we do. All these factors tend to increase merit.

Purity of intention is closely related to the possession of grace. Christ set down the standard when He said, “Take heed not to practice your good before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall have no reward with your Father in heaven.” [70] Merit can be lost if no purity of intention is present, and its value grows with the singleness of purpose—to please God—that motivates our actions.

A pure intention involves two aspects that need to be kept distinct: the purity of the motive with which we perform a salutary action and its nobility. The first refers to the absence of self-interest or lesser motives than seeking to please God, the second has to do with how much supernatural charity influences what we are doing.

Generous motivation is paramount in the gaining of merit, and understandably determines the supernatural reward that comes to us from God. Nevertheless it does not follow that if any other motive intrudes than the single one of seeking the divine glory, the action is without merit, or worse, even sinful. If a lower motive like vainglory should enter, it is highly questionable whether such an imperfection is always connected with venial sin. In practice it is recommended to bolster one’s motivation from several sides, and increase merit in the process while protecting it. Thus an act of patience prompted by respect for the person concerned and by the desire to atone for one’s sins has the combined value of the two virtues converging on a single object, and safeguards the will from becoming soiled through selfishness.

Since charity is the wellspring of spiritual conduct, every act we place under its inspiration will have meritorious value in the measure of divine love that moves us. Theoretically, then, since an act of theological charity is the most noble act of the virtues and highest in merit, acts of the other virtues will become more meritorious as more charity is put into them. However a caution must be made. At least two propositions of Fenelon have been censured, to forestall the suspicion that there is something wrong if charity is combined with some other less altruistic virtue. “There is a habitual state of the love of God,” said Fenelon, “which is pure charity and without any admixture of self-interest. Neither the fear of punishment nor the desire of reward has any longer a place in it.” And from another angle, “in the state of a contemplative or unitive life, we lose every self-interested motive of fear and hope.” [71]

Accordingly merit is not increased if, eliciting an act of virtue motivated by the love of God, I exclude the motive of other virtues or abstract from them. The increase derives rather from subordinating such motives as hope and fear of God to the dominant one of love. In fact, “charity cannot exist alone without the exercise of the other virtues, just as the other virtues are not perfect without charity because they do not perfectly unite one with God.” [72] A common practice is to renew the pure intention occasionally by making aspirations of the love of God.

Fervor or voluntary intensity also raises the meritoriousness of our acts. Another way to express the same idea is that the greater willfulness we expend in performing a good action, the greater liberty it indicates and the higher merit it deserves, just as in bad actions increased advertence and freedom mean greater culpability. Half-hearted effort merits in proportion to its lack of volitional energy, just as whole-hearted generosity gains proportionally. “For the love of God,” St. Ignatius urged his sons, “be not careless or tepid. Try to maintain a holy, discreet ardor in work and in the pursuit of learning as well as of virtue. With one as with the other, one energetic act is worth a thousand that are listless, and what a lazy man cannot accomplish in many years an energetic man usually achieves in a short time.” [73]

A person’s state in life may also affect the worth of his actions. Persons living under vow, whether in the religious life or the priesthood or by private commitment to God, are directly concerned.

When a person takes a vow he makes an act of religion, which is the chief of the moral virtues, whose object is to worship God as the ultimate source of creation. “Hence the works of the other virtues, like fasting, which is an act of abstinence, or continence, which is an act of chastity, are better and more meritorious if they are done in fulfillment of vow, since they thus belong to the divine worship, being like sacrifices to God. Wherefore St. Augustine says that not even virginity is honorable in itself, but only when consecrated to God and cherished by godly continence.” [74]

Furthermore, a vow implies offering God not only one or more actions but giving Him the very power behind the activity, since a person binds himself so that in the future he cannot do something else, just as “he gives more who gives the tree with its fruit, than he who gives the fruit only.” [75] His will is thereby fixed on the service of God, since the essence of a perpetual vow is to consecrate oneself irrevocably to the divine will. As in things evil, a man is more wicked if he is obstinate in committing sin, so is he better and his actions are meritorious if he is dedicated in doing good.

Determining Factors in the Action

Along with the subjective aspects of virtue that contribute to greater merit are the objective elements of the actions themselves. This stands to reason because what counts with God is not only our intentions but also our deeds; they have their share in the reward that is due to us.

The intrinsic excellence of an act of virtue is one determining factor since we know that the virtues have a hierarchy of values which is independent of the circumstances under which they are practiced. Between the theological and moral virtues, the former are superior, and within them theological charity is the highest. [76] Consequently other things remaining equal, there is more credit with God in performing an act of faith than one of temperance, and of charity than of faith. We have to practice all the virtues, of course; but on the bare level of their relative worth, some are higher than others and correspondingly more meritorious.

Two practical items may be pointed out. Given this hierarchy of objective value, it follows that a man should take every reasonable opportunity to practice the higher virtues and not allow himself, unnecessarily, to devote all his time and energy to a lesser when he could also be practicing the higher. [77] On the other hand, the complexities of daily life are such that most people have little choice on the kind of virtues they practice, say prudence for a teacher or justice in an administrator. Yet they can profit from the higher virtues of faith and charity by animating their practice of prudence and justice with motives that draw upon faith and the love of God. In fact, this is the main reason why a life under vow is per se more pleasing to the Lord than the same life without such consecration. The difference is that by his vows a man’s whole life is dominated by the virtue of religion, which looks exclusively to the honor and glory of God.

Quantity or frequency of an act, and its duration, are also meritorious elements. Certainly we would call a man more generous if he gave a thousand dollars to some worthy cause than if he gave only ten; or if he helped a poor family for a year instead of only for a day; or if he never failed in kindness to anyone, than if he were kind only to one or two.

However, as we know from Christ’s comment about the widow’s two mites, the quantitative aspect of our good actions is relative; it depends on numerous other factors that may completely reverse the picture, where a dollar’s gift to charity may be more worthy supernaturally than many times that sum. Perhaps the best explanation is to say that the quantity of a good act—its amount, frequency, or duration—is a factor less in determining than in manifesting merit. It shows greater virtue and will deserve better of God, not necessarily in contrast with other people’s actions, but by comparing a man with his own ideals and capacity for action. My half dollar in the Sunday collection may be more meritorious than someone else’s ten dollars; however it would also be less meritorious if, through selfishness I gave only a fraction of what I could afford.

More critical than the foregoing is the function of difficulty of hardship in the performance of virtue. Do they also increase merit and why?

At the outset it must be said that difficulties are not of themselves meritorious. The contrary opinion of the Jansenists was born of the strange theory that a man’s nature is so fallen it can only follow its own concupiscence and clash with every moral good, unless divine grace comes along and efficaciously supplies for human depravity. Condemned by the Church for postulating this unnatural tension, they took refuge in believing that the opposition they experienced was just another facet of the same principle. “The suffering of persecution and punishments that a person endures as though he were a heretic, sinner and criminal is normally his final probation and most meritorious, because it makes him ore conformed to Jesus Christ.” [78] Indeed, for Quesnel it too often happens that the holiest men in the Church are treated as the least worthy, in accordance with the universal law of conflict.

The Catholic interpretation is quite different. Difficulties inherent in the practice of virtue tend to increase merit, not because they are obstacles to be overcome but because they invoke greater love of God, more generosity, and more strenuous effort. St. Thomas compares the lot of man before and after the fall to point up the issue involved.

In his pristine condition, man commonly would have had grater grace than after he had sinned. His will therefore would have been more ready to act, since there was no resistance. Consequently the actions of a man in his primitive state were more efficacious for merit than afterwards, if we consider his conduct regarding the same object in both cases. This would be true although a man has more trouble performing a given act since the fall than before.
The reason is that an arduous task increases the degree of merit not by reason of the difficulty but of the nobility of the act, except obliquely, to the extent that what is difficult calls for greater attention and requires greater effort of the will. [79]

Unlike charity and voluntariness, then, difficulty is not the essence of merit. Yet there is a close relation. It either implies an exalted object which is difficult to reach because it is high, or at least evokes greater will power and generosity because it is difficult to do.

Keeping these distinctions in mind, it remains true that difficulties in the spiritual life have much to do with raising the merit of our conduct. It is assumed that the hardship is not culpable, otherwise the bad habits induced by years of sin would make the simplest act of virtue heroic in a dissipated will. Stated more broadly, the source of hardship can be extrinsic to the action, arising from culpable personal defects. Sinful habits, uncontrolled passions, evil inclination, or lack of prudent vigilance, then, clearly, are difficulties which lower merit instead of increasing it.

But if the difficulties are intrinsic to the action, i.e. part of its very nature, or at least not culpable in the person here and now; they add to the meritorious value of good actions done under such trying circumstances. Thus if the work to be done is arduous or sublime in itself, if doing it means overcoming severe temptations and external or even internal trials arising from temperament or physical conditions, the merit in performing what God wants will gain greater reward.

The statements of the saints in their hunger for suffering must be interpreted in the light of these principles, at the risk of misunderstanding what William James crudely dismissed as “pathological self-immolation.” Among the mystics especially, we find an incredible desire to endure trials that seem to the natural man inhumanly extreme. St. Margaret Mary is a classic example, as revealed in her letters.

I consider the hours I Have spent without suffering as lost. Indeed, I assure you that I do not wish to live long unless I have the happiness to suffer.
It pleases the Lord to keep me in a state of continual suffering, my strength so exhausted that it is with extreme difficulty I carry my miserable body of sin. When I behold my suffering, it seems to me that I feel the same joy the most avaricious and ambitious do in seeing their treasures multiply.
I know of nothing that so sweetens the prolongation of life as constant suffering in loving. Let us then suffer lovingly and uncomplainingly, esteeming as lost the moments passed without suffering. Who can hinder us from becoming saints, when we have a heart to love and a body to suffer? [80]

The clue to this attitude toward suffering is the word “love” that constantly recurs in the writings of the saints. In the history of God’s dealing with men, those whom He chooses for closest intimacy He visits with the greatest trials to purify them from inordinate taste for creatures and dispose them for graces of a high order. They, in turn, responded to this economy by using the difficulties that other people avoid, to deepen their volitional effort in serving God under His visitations.

In the Spiritual Exercises we have the philosophy of hardship in the supernatural life reduced to a definite plan. Ignatius built on the premise that a soul in love with God will seek to be like Him as far as it can.

It is a matter of faith that God became man, and in His human nature underwent the most trying experiences of poverty, humiliation, the Passion, and finally death on the Cross. If I love Christ, I want to follow in His paths, which means to have a habitual disposition of preferring poverty to wealth, contempt to honor, and labor to a life of ease.

Yet, even in the sublime heights of the Third Mode of Humility, Ignatius does not forget the meritorious value of this following of the Master. The reward he envisions is an increase of the divine life in the soul, making it more pleasing to God, as well as more graces for others, merited congruously in favor of people whose salvation may depend on the sacrifices of those who are God’s chosen ones.

[1] Genesis 5:24; CCC 2569.

[2] 2 Kings 2:3-12; 2 Maccabees 2:58.

[3] Ezechiel 5-6.

[4] Wisdom 3:1-9.

[5] Merit as reward (Matthew 5:11), prize (Philippians 3:14), crown (James 1:12), remuneration (Hebrews 10:35), retribution (Colossians 3:23).

[6] Matthew 5:11-12; CCC 520.

[7] Romans 2:6-7.

[8] 2 Timothy 4:7.

[9] James 1:12.

[10] Apocalypse 2:10.

[11] Romans 4:1; CCC 2473.

[12] St. Irenaeus, “Adversus omnes haereses,” 4, 37, MPL 7:1104.

[13] Tertullian, “De Paenitentia,” 2, MPL 1:1230.

[14] Adolph Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (Leipzig: Mohr, 1894), II, 179.

[15] St. Augustine, “Commentary on Psalms,” 83:16, The Faith of the Early Fathers, ed. and trans. William A. Jurgens (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 3:19; CCC 2007-8.

[16] DS 388; CCC 1996, 2008.

[17] St. Thomas, De Veritate, XIV, 5, 5; CCC 2011.

[18] St. Thomas, II Sententiarum, 40, 1, 5.

[19] John Calvin, Institutes, III 15, 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] DS 1532; Romans 11:6; CCC 2010.

[22] DS 1535; Apocalypse 22:11; CCC 1266.

[23] DS 1545, 1546; John 4:13.

[24] DS 1548; 1 Cor. 1:31, James 3:2; CCC 2008.

[25] DS 1913; CCC 2010.

[26] DS 1912.

[27] DS 2003.

[28] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 114, 2, 1; CCC 2006.

[29] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, corpus.

[30] CCC 2009.

[31] Hebrews 9:27; CCC 1013, 1021.

[32] DS 1488.

[33] John 15:4.

[34] Matthew 19:16-17.

[35] CCC 2011, 2026.

[36] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 100, 10, 2.

[37] CCC 2016.

[38] Matthew 16:27.

[39] 1 Corinthians 3:8.

[40] St. Augustine, Joannis Evangelium Tractatus 67, 2.

[41] St. Augustine, Enchiridion 111.

[42] DS 1574, 1582.

[43] Romans 6:22; CCC 1995.

[44] Ephesians 4:15.

[45] St. Augustine, “In Joannis Evangelium Tractatus,” MPL 35:1838.

[46] Francisco Suárez, De Divina Gratia (Mogvntiae: Sumptibus H.M. Birckmanni, 1652), XII, 38, 6-7.

[47] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 114, 6; CCC 270.

[48] Psalm 33:10-11.

[49] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 114, 9, 1.

[50] St. Thomas Aquinas, De Potentia, 6, 9, 5.

[51] Hebrews 7:22, 25; CCC 1364.

[52] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 87, 6; CCC 1459.

[53] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Supplement, 15, 1; CCC 1460.

[54] St. Augustine, “Retractiones,” MPL 32:583 sqq; CCC 271.

[55] DS 1580; CCC 1472-73.

[56] DS 1713.

[57] Wisdom 40:1-2.

[58] DS 2306, 2635.

[59] CCC 1128.

[60] Rituale Romanum.

[61] St. Robert Bellarmine, De Paenitentia, IV, 6; CCC 1434.

[62] 1 Peter 4:8.

[63] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians 33, 24.

[64] Pius XI, On Reparation to the Sacred Heart [Miserentissimus Redemptor] (1928), 8.

[65] Joel 2:12-13.

[66] Paul VI, On Indulgences [Indulgentiarum Doctrina] (1967), Norm 1; also Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici), trans. Canon Law Society of America (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), Canon 992; CCC 1471.

[67] Medieval Handbooks of Penance, trans. John Thomas McNeill and Helena Margaret Gamer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 105, 108.

[68] Luke 21:3-4.

[69] St. Thomas, II, Sententiarum, 29, 1, 4.

[70] Matthew 6:1; CCC 1752-53.

[71] DS 2351, 2352.

[72] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 184, 1, 2; CCC 2102-03.

[73] St. Ignatius, Letters, 123.

[74] St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 88, 6.

[75] Ibid.

[76] CCC 1826.

[77] CCC 1827.

[78] DS 2498.

[79] St. Thomas Aquinas, II Sententiarum, 29, 1, 4.

[80] François Léon Gauthey, Vie et Oeuvres de Sainte Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (Paris: Ancienne Librairie Poussielgue, 1920), Vol. II, Letters 11, 39, 86, 92; CCC 2031.

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