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Grace Actual And Habitual by Joseph Pohle

Section 3. The Objects Of Merit

After defining the existence of merit the Tridentine Council enumerates its objects as follows: |If anyone saith that the justified, by the good works which he performs, ... does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life, -- if it be so, however, that he depart in grace, -- and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.|(1320) Hence merit calls for a threefold reward: (1) an increase of sanctifying grace; (2) heavenly glory; and (3) an increase of that glory. The expression |vere mereri| shows that all three of these objects can be merited in the true and strict sense of the term (de condigno). This is, however, no more than a theologically certain conclusion.

1. INCREASE OF SANCTIFYING GRACE. -- The first grace of justification (gratia prima) can never be merited;(1321) hence the meaning of the above-quoted conciliar definition is that it can be increased by good works. This increase is technically called gratia secunda. All Scriptural texts which assert that sanctifying grace is unequal in different individuals, also prove that it can be increased or augmented by the performance of meritorious works.(1322)

a) No adult person can merit the first grace of assistance (gratia prima actualis), nor any one of the series of actual graces which follow it, and by which justification ultimately comes to pass. They are all purely gratuitous. Similarly, too, the first grace of justification (gratia prima habitualis) cannot be strictly merited by the sinner preparing for justification. This is the express teaching of Trent: |But we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification -- whether faith or works -- merit the grace itself of justification; for, if it be a grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.|(1323) To deny this would not only imperil the dogma of the gratuity of grace (because if the first grace given before active justification could be strictly merited, this would necessarily involve the gratia prima actualis), but it would also start a vicious circle (because the gratia prima habitualis is an indispensable condition of merit). This explains why St. Paul and St. Augustine again and again insist on the gratuity both of the first grace of assistance and the grace of justification proper.(1324) |This grace of Christ,| says St. Augustine, |without which neither infants nor adults can be saved, is not bestowed for any merits, but is given freely, on account of which it is also called grace. 'Being justified,' says the Apostle, 'freely through His blood.' |(1325)

In the light of this teaching it is easy to decide the question, raised by Vasquez, whether perfect contrition justifies the sinner merely per modum dispositionis or per modum causae formalis. Both contrition and charity, be they perfect or imperfect, are essentially acts that dispose the soul for justification.(1326) Hence, no matter how perfect, neither is capable of effecting justification itself by way of merit (merendo), nay, of entering even partially, as Vasquez would have it, into the formal cause of justification, because, according to the Tridentine Council, sanctifying grace and not perfect contrition is the unica causa formalis of justification.(1327)

b) In connection with the dogma just explained theologians discuss the question whether a just man may strictly (de condigno) merit the actual graces which God bestows on him. We must carefully distinguish between merely sufficient and efficacious graces. Theologians commonly hold(1328) that merely sufficient graces may be merited de condigno, not so efficacious graces, because the right to efficacious graces would necessarily include a strict right to final perseverance (donum perseverantiae), which lies outside the sphere of condign merit. Assuming that the justified could by good works strictly merit the prima gratia efficax (an impossible hypothesis, because merit presupposes efficacious grace), this would involve a similar claim to a second, third, fourth grace -- and ultimately to the final grace of perseverance, which, in matter of fact, no man can merit. Not even heroic acts of virtue give a strict right to infallibly efficacious graces, or to final perseverance. Even the greatest saint is obliged to watch, pray, and tremble, lest he lapse from righteousness.(1329) For this reason the Tridentine Council mentions neither final perseverance nor efficacious graces among the objects of merit.(1330)

2. ETERNAL LIFE OR HEAVENLY GLORY. -- The second object of merit is eternal life. The dogmatic proof for this assertion has been given above.(1331) Eternal life is described by the Tridentine Council(1332) both as a grace and as a reward.

a) In the canon quoted in the introduction of this Section the same Council(1333) enumerates four apparently separate and distinct objects of merit, viz.: increase of grace, eternal life, the attainment of eternal life, and increase of glory. Why the distinction between |eternal life| and the |attainment of eternal life|? Does this imply a twofold reward, and consequently a twofold object of merit? Theologians deny that such was the intention of the Council, because the right to a reward evidently coincides with the right to the payment of the same. An unattainable eternal life would be a chimera.(1334) Nevertheless, the distinction is not superfluous, since the attainment of eternal life does not coincide with the gaining of merit but must be put off until death, and even then depends upon the condition of the soul: |si tamen in gratia decesserit| (provided he depart in grace). With this last condition the holy Synod also wished to inculcate the salutary truth that the loss of sanctifying grace ipso facto entails the forfeiture of all previously acquired merits. Even the greatest saint, were he to die in the state of mortal sin, would enter eternity with empty hands and as an enemy of God. All his former merits would be cancelled. To revive them would require a new justification.(1335)

b) A close analysis of the Tridentine canon under review gives rise to another difficulty. Can the gloria prima be merited? In defining the gratia secunda as an object of strict merit, the Council expressly excludes the gratia prima. It makes no such distinction in regard to glory, but names both |eternal life| (gloria prima) and |increase of glory| (gloria secunda) as objects of merit. This naturally suggests the query: Why and to what extent can the just man merit the gloria prima, seeing that he is unable to merit the gratia prima? Some theologians(1336) contend that the justified are entitled to the gloria prima only as a heritage (titulo haereditatis), never as a reward (titulo mercedis). Because of its intimate causal connection with the gratia prima, which is beyond the reach of merit, the gloria prima, they argue, cannot be regarded as an object of merit except on the assumption that the merits which precede justification confer a claim to the gloria prima. This assumption is false, because without sanctifying grace no condign merits can be acquired.(1337) In spite of this difficulty, however, most theologians(1338) hold that, unlike the gratia prima, the gloria prima may under certain conditions be an object of strict merit. The main reason is that, as the state of glory is not a necessary requisite of the meritoriousness of good works, while the state of grace is, the former may positis ponendis be an effect of the meritum de congruo, though the latter may not. A mere statement of the problem shows that it cannot be satisfactorily solved unless we distinguish between and enter into a detailed examination of two distinct hypotheses. It is generally agreed that infants dying in the state of baptismal grace owe that grace, and the state of glory which they enjoy in Heaven, solely to God's mercy and have no claim to beatitude other than that of heredity (titulus hereditatis). Adults who preserve their baptismal innocence until death, manifestly cannot merit the gloria prima by their good works, because they already possess a legal title to it through Baptism.(1339) It follows that their good works increase, but do not merit, the gloria prima, to which these souls are already entitled titulo haereditatis. The case is quite different with catechumens and Christians guilty of mortal sin, who are justified by an act of perfect contrition before the reception of Baptism or the Sacrament of Penance. Of them it may be said, without fear of contradiction, that they merit for themselves de condigno, not indeed the first grace of justification, but the gloria prima, because perfect contrition, being an opus operans, at the very moment of its infusion becomes an opus meritorium entitled to eternal glory.(1340) As regards the great majority of adult Catholics who, because of defective preparation, never get beyond imperfect contrition (attritio), and therefore are not justified until they actually receive the Sacrament, it is certain that they owe whatever grace they possess and whatever glory they have a claim to, entirely to the opus operatum of the Sacrament.(1341)

3. INCREASE OF HEAVENLY GLORY. -- The third object of merit, according to the Tridentine Council, is |increase of glory.| This must evidently correspond to an increase of grace, which in its turn is conditioned upon the performance of additional good works. That there is a causal connection between meritorious works performed on earth and the glory enjoyed in Heaven is clearly taught by Holy Scripture. Cfr. Matth. XVI, 27: |For the Son of man shall ... render to every man according to his works.|(1342) 1 Cor. III, 8: |And every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.|(1343) A further argument may be derived from the unequal apportionment of glory to the elect in Heaven.(1344) This inequality is based on inequality of grace, which in turn is owing to the fact that grace can be augmented by good works. Consequently, the inequality of glory depends ultimately on good works.(1345)

4. NOTE ON THE MERITUM DE CONGRUO. -- Congruous, as distinguished from condign merit, gives no real claim to a reward, but only a quasi-claim based on equity (ex quadam aequitate, congruentia, decentia).

Hence congruous merit and condign merit are not species of the same genus, but merely analogous terms. Because of the ambiguity of the word |equity| Dominicus Soto, Becanus, and a few other Scholastics rejected the use of the term meritum de congruo in theology. But this was a mistake. The Fathers engaged in the Semipelagian controversy, notably St. Augustine,(1346) did not assert that the justifying faith of the sinner is entirely without merit. The requisites of congruous merit are identical with those of condign merit(1347) in all respects except one, -- the meritum de congruo does not require the state of grace.

a) According to the common opinion, from which but few theologians dissent,(1348) a Christian in the state of mortal sin can, from the moment he begins to cooeperate with supernatural grace, merit de congruo by good works, and obtain by prayer the dispositions necessary for justification, and ultimately justification itself.

|Prayer relies on mercy,| says St. Thomas, |condign merit on justice. And therefore man obtains from the divine mercy many things by prayer which he does not merit in strict justice.|(1349) This teaching is based partly on Holy Scripture and partly on the writings of St. Augustine, and is confirmed by certain utterances of the Council of Trent. By conscientiously preparing himself with the aid of actual grace, the sinner probably merits an additional claim (in equity) to justification. Cfr. Ps. L, 19: |A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.|(1350) Dan. IV, 24: |Redeem thou thy sins with alms, and thy iniquities with works of mercy to the poor: perhaps he [God] will forgive thy offences.|(1351) St. Augustine says: |The remission of sins itself is not without some merit, if faith asks for it. Nor is that faith entirely unmeritorious by which the publican was moved to say: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner,' and then went away justified through the merit of faithful humility.|(1352)

b) By good works the just may merit for themselves, not in strict justice (de condigno), but as a matter of equity (de congruo), final perseverance, conversion from mortal sin, spiritual favors for others, and also such temporal blessings as may be conducive to eternal salvation.

{GREEK SMALL LETTER ALPHA}) It is a theologically certain conclusion, accepted by all theologians without exception, that the grace of final perseverance (donum perseverantiae) cannot be merited in the strict sense (de condigno). Most authors hold, however, that it can be merited de congruo. This meritum is technically called meritum de congruo fallibili. Those who deny that it can be merited at all, admit that it can be infallibly obtained by fervent and unremitting prayer.(1353)

{GREEK SMALL LETTER BETA}) It is impossible to answer with anything like certainty the question whether the just man is able to merit for himself in advance the grace of conversion against the eventuality of a future lapse into mortal sin. Following the lead of Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas takes a negative view,(1354) on the ground that mortal sin interrupts the state of grace and annihilates all former merits. In another passage of his writings, however, the Angelic Doctor says: |There are two kinds of merit, one based on justice, and this is called condign; and another based solely upon mercy, and this is called congruous. Of the latter St. Paul says that it is just, i.e. congruous, that a man who has performed many good works should merit.... And in this wise God does not forget our work and love.|(1355) Scotus,(1356) Bonaventure,(1357) and Suarez(1358) regard this as |a pious and probable opinion,| well supported by Holy Scripture. The prophet Jehu said to Josaphat, King of Juda: |Thou helpest the ungodly, and thou art joined in friendship with them that hate the Lord, and therefore thou didst deserve indeed the wrath of the Lord; but good works are found in thee.|(1359) To this argument add the following consideration: If previous mortal sin does not prevent those acts whereby man is disposed for justification from being at least to a limited extent meritorious, there is no reason to assume that merits cancelled by subsequent mortal sin will not be imputed to the sinner, with due regard, of course, to a certain proportion between past merits and future sins.(1360) To pray for the grace of conversion against the eventuality of future mortal sin, is always good and useful,(1361) because it cannot but please God to know that we sincerely desire to be restored to His friendship if we should ever have the misfortune of losing it.(1362)

{GREEK SMALL LETTER GAMMA}) The just man may congruously merit for others whatever he is able to merit for himself, e.g. the grace of conversion, final perseverance, and also the first prevenient grace (gratia prima praeveniens), which no man in the state of original sin is able to merit for himself.(1363) The reason for this, according to St. Thomas, is the intimate relation of friendship which sanctifying grace establishes between the just man and God.(1364) However, as Sylvius rightly observes, it is not in the power of the just to obtain by this friendship favors which would involve the abrogation of the divinely established order of salvation. Such a favor would be, for example, the justification of a sinner without the medium of grace, or of a child without the agency of Baptism. An unreasonable petition deserves no consideration, even if made by a friend. What may be obtained by the merit of good works may be even more effectively obtained by prayer for others. The Apostle St. James teaches: |Pray for one another that you may be saved; for the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.|(1365) This consoling truth is confirmed by the dogma of the Communion of Saints, by many illustrious examples from the Bible(1366) and ecclesiastical history,(1367) and by the traditional practice of the Church in praying God to give strength and perseverance to the faithful and the grace of conversion to the heathen and the sinner.(1368)

{GREEK SMALL LETTER DELTA}) A final question remains to be answered: Can the just congruously merit such temporal blessings as good health, a comfortable living, and success in business? They can, but only in so far as these favors are conducive to eternal salvation; for otherwise they would not be graces. St. Thomas seems to go even further than this by describing temporal favors as objects of condign merit when they are conducive to salvation, and of congruous merit when they bear no relation to that end.(1369) We have no space left to enter into an argument on this point, but in conclusion wish to call attention to two important facts: first, that prayer is more effective than good works in obtaining temporal as well as spiritual favors; and secondly, that we should not strive with too much anxiety for earthly goods, but direct our thoughts, desires, prayers, and actions to God, the Infinite Good, who has promised to be our |exceeding great reward.|(1370)

READINGS: -- St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, 1a 2ae, qu.114, art.1 sqq. -- Billuart, De Gratia, diss.8, art.1-5. -- *Bellarmine, De Iustificatione, V, 1-22. -- *Suarez, Opusc. de Divina Iustitia. -- IDEM, De Gratia, l. XII, cap.1 sqq. -- Oswald, Lehre von der Heiligung, d. i. Gnade, Rechtfertigung, Gnodenwahl, § 7, 3rd ed., Paderborn 1885. -- Tepe, Institutiones Theologicae, Vol. III, pp.223 sqq., Paris 1896. -- *Heinrich-Gutberlet, Dogmatische Theologie, Vol. VIII, § 473 sqq., Mainz 1897. -- Chr. Pesch, Praelectiones Dogmaticae, Vol. V, 3rd ed., pp.215 sqq., Freiburg 1908. -- *S. Schiffini, De Gratia Divina, pp.594 sqq., Freiburg 1901. -- Kneib, Die Lohnsucht der christlichen Moral, Vienna 1904. -- I. J. Remler, C. M., Supernatural Merit, St. Louis 1914. -- A. Devine, C. P., The Sacraments Explained, 3rd ed., London 1905, pp.74-89. -- L. Labauche, S. S., God and Man, pp.254-270, N. Y.1916. (On merit in general see M. Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Vol. I, Dublin 1909, pp.544 sqq.) -- B. J. Otten, S. J., A Manual of the History of Dogmas, Vol. II, St. Louis 1918, pp.249 sqq.

On the Protestant idea of the fruits of justification see Moehler, Symbolik, § 21 sqq. (English edition, pp.157 sqq.).

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