Merit Revisited

One of the most significant themes is the doctrine of merit.  This long-forgotten element of Catholic teaching has made a remarkably ostensible reappearance in the new translation.

It seems that the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal has gone over remarkably well, even better than many expected.  Our congregations seem to be adjusting well, despite the occasional “and also with you.”

Among the most striking changes in the new translation is the pervasive presence of rich doctrinal themes.  It’s not as though these themes were absent from the liturgy before.  They were clearly articulated in the original Latin text, but were unfortunately obscured in the previous translation.

One of the most significant themes is the doctrine of merit.  This long-forgotten element of Catholic teaching has made a remarkably ostensible reappearance in the new translation.  It appears regularly throughout the proper prayers, and is referenced in Eucharistic Prayer II which prays that “we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life.”  It is a doctrine that has been misunderstood for centuries, and has been the source of great disagreement and consternation throughout the history of the Church.

Simply stated, merit makes our actions worthy of reward by God.  Merit is part and parcel of our everyday natural lives: a laborer who performs his job well merits a proper wage, which has been promised by his employer pending the fulfillment of his duty.

The difficulty in understanding merit in the supernatural order is that it seems to place a condition on God, who is all-powerful and infinitely greater than any human act.  While this is true, God himself has promised believers a just reward for persevering in this life.  This teaching is profoundly scriptural.  Jesus continually promises heavenly rewards to those who follow him faithfully: “Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:12).  Matthew 25 presents eternal life as a reward for those who served Christ with good works on earth.  (See also Mt 19:29; 25:21; and Lk 6:38.)

Even St. Paul, who was so careful to stress the free gift of grace over the performance of works, articulates a rich theology of merit.  In his second letter to Timothy, he presents the doctrine of merit by employing the image of a “crown of righteousness” that will be awarded by the Lord, the just judge (2 Tm 4:8).  St. Paul also clearly teaches that God “will repay everyone according to his works” (Rom 2:6) and that “each will receive his own reward in proportion to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).

Merit does not place an alien restriction on God’s omnipotence.  Good works performed in and with the power of God’s grace are truly meritorious because God himself has promised rewards for those who perform them and provides the power to accomplish them.  The newly translated Preface of Saints provides a pithy affirmation of this point: “in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.”  The good works of the believer in a state of grace are made meritorious precisely and only by grace, which unites our works to those of Christ himself.  The grace of justification, received in baptism—which cleanses us of original sin and makes us children of God—provides the supernatural principle through which our good works earn for us our heavenly reward.  This principle of grace cannot be merited, but becomes the source of further, truly meritorious acts.  In praising this supernatural principle—divine charity—St. Paul does not denigrate good works, he asserts rather, that only works done without charity as their foundation are useless (see 1 Corinthians 13).

The grace of justification cannot be earned or merited; it is sheer gift.  Yet aside from this “first grace” and the grace of persevering in the faith until death, God wills that we merit an increase of sanctifying grace (the grace that configures us to participate in God’s own divine life). Likewise, he wills that we merit eternal life itself, and an increase of the glory we will experience in heaven (the ability to reflect God’s glory more brightly, not only in this world, but even in the Kingdom).  Additionally, we are able to merit grace for others, including the grace of conversion.  Temporal goods can also be merited, insofar as they are useful for virtuous works and aid in our attainment of eternal life.

The teaching of the apostles was inherited and articulated more fully by the Church Fathers who were deeply concerned about the intersection of theology and pastoral practice.  In exhorting their people on the appropriation of the Gospel in their daily lives, the Fathers frequently turned to the notion of merit to encourage authentic witness to Christ and his Church.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died between 98 and 117AD, advised his fellow bishop Polycarp: “Let your works be your deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you” (Letter to Polycarp, Chapter 6).  St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 383AD), in his teaching on the afterlife, observed “every laborer is ready to endure the toils, if he sees their reward in prospect” (Catecheses No. 18:1).  The doctrine of merit is also found, among other places, in the teaching of St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Jerome, and even St. Augustine.  The notion of merit clearly permeated the teaching and practice of the early Church.

The constant teaching of the Church on the doctrine of merit, found in Scripture and in the teaching of the Fathers, was confirmed by the Council of Orange in the fifth century and again by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.  At that time, Martin Luther taught that all human works are sinful, since human beings are fundamentally depraved by sin.  Luther later adjusted his position, acknowledging that the believer can perform good works, but he denied the meritorious nature of such actions.  Calvin taught that all human works are empty of efficacy before God, and that only the merits of Christ had any value.

The desire of the reformers to preserve the singularity of Christ’s merits was a good and necessary one.  Nothing could be added to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, by which he merited for us eternal life.  But they failed to see that God bestows a special dignity on human actions.  He wills that we participate in Christ’s saving action by uniting our own good works to his through grace.

The teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas is quite instructive in this regard.  We find his teaching on merit in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, where he explores the capacity of man to become the true author and master of his moral actions.  Two things quickly become evident in Aquinas’s exposition: man is truly capable of free acts which make them worthy of merit or punishment; and because man’s final end exceeds the capacity of his nature, a supernatural principle is required—grace—in order for his actions to have any congruence whatsoever with his supernatural end.

The eminent Thomist, Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., maintains that we find in St. Thomas’s masterful arrangement of the Secunda Pars of the Summa the deeper insight that God not only provides the law from without to guide moral action, but also provides an interior principle of grace which elevates and gives supernatural significance to our own free acts.  The interior movement of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the justified permits a free cooperation that enables man to perform not only good works, but truly meritorious works.  Can one help but call to mind Jesus’ own image for this unique cooperation of human freedom and divine grace, the vine and the branches?  “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4).

When was the last time we heard that teaching?  If not for the new translation, one wonders if the Catholic faithful would ever hear it.  In a world that has cheapened the value and significance of human interaction and moral decision making, the knowledge that God allows our own good works to become salvific is all the more desperately needed.

While many try to reduce the message of the Gospel to mere goodwill, the Church proposes a deeper insight: human actions elevated and informed by grace not only do good on earth, but more importantly store up treasure in heaven.  Good deeds are not enough, mere philanthropy is not enough.  But finding oneself and remaining in a state of grace is.

At a recent gathering, I heard a well-respected and scholarly priest remark that the laity are far better educated than in years past, and that our preaching and teaching ought to match the level of learning in the pews.  I agree.  If ever there was a time for a liturgy that highlights important yet complex doctrinal themes, it is now.  The average layperson is capable of grappling with complexity; clergy should be as well.

The new translation, with all its theological richness and depth, makes the ancient maxim all the more true: lex orandi, lex credendi.  The law of worship is clearly the law of belief.


Fr. Joseph R. Upton About Fr. Joseph R. Upton

Fr. Joseph R. Upton is a priest of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He is currently assigned to Saint Francis of Assisi Church, and The Prout School, both in Wakefield, Rhode Island.


  1. Indeed. Could not agree further with Father’s remarks. As a music minister, cantor and frequent communicant during the week at Saint Francis I feel very much gifted by the homilies of Monsignor Theuroux and Father Upton. We, the congregation, need to know what is going on, particularly when it comes to changes in the liturgy. This is a very enlightened parish.

  2. Dear Fr. Upton,

    I want to focus on this part of your important article:

    “While many try to reduce the message of the Gospel to mere goodwill, the Church proposes a deeper insight: human actions elevated and informed by grace… Good deeds are not enough, mere philanthropy is not enough. But finding oneself and remaining in a state of grace is.

    At a recent gathering, I heard a well-respected and scholarly priest remark that the laity are far better educated than in years past, and that our preaching and teaching ought to match the level of learning in the pews. I agree.”

    We in the pews do suffer from homilies offering a kind of “dumbing down” of the Gospel, extolling “mere goodwill” and “good deeds,” while empty of the crucial mysteries of spiritual life and grace. I suspect that you did not mean to suggest that the well-educated laity of today are well-formed in matters of the Faith, but in the matters of this world. While it is true that the laity are well-educated in secular matters, the Pope points out our current ignorance concerning Christ and His Truth:

    ”One of the most formidable obstacles to our pastoral mission is ignorance of the content of faith. Indeed, this is a dual form of ignorance: the ignorance of Jesus Christ as a person and ignorance of the sublime nature of His teachings, of their universal and permanent value in the search for the meaning of life and happiness. In the new generations this ignorance produces an inability to understand history or to recognize themselves as heirs to this tradition, which has shaped European life, society, art and culture.” (

    I especially appreciate the Holy Father’s precise and complete observation. Although he is speaking here to French bishops, the problem is certainly not an exclusively French one. Our problem – certainly for the modern West – is two-fold; there is “a dual form of ignorance” :
    1) we are ignorant of “Christ as a person,” and
    2) we are ignorant of “the sublime nature of His teachings.”

    In my recent article here on HPR*, I stressed the importance of #1 above, which must be addressed before, and as a living, integral and ever-deepening component of a life-long growing in #2 above.

    I am fairly sure you meant what I am stressing here, but I just wanted to add this comment for clarity’s sake.

    Thank you for the clarity on merit! That is an often-neglected but important aspect of our Faith.

    Thomas Richard

    *”Prior to Adult Faith Formation, One Thing Is Necessary” –

  3. Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller says:

    Fr. Upton’s review of the theme of merit is a breath of fresh air!


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