Merit: Clarification of the Catholic Doctrine

Merit: Clarification of the Catholic Doctrine May 10, 2016

Condign and Congruous Merit, Prevenient Grace, Etc.



Someone wrote on the Coming Home Network Internet forum (where I was moderator from 2007-2010):

Apologist John Martignoni recently wrote: “The Catholic Church teaches that one’s works are of absolutely no avail, unless one is already in a state of justification.” Apologetics for the Masses, #107

Apologist Jimmy Akin recently wrote: “. . . Catholic theology holds, it is impossible for man to do anything meritorious prior to justification (DJ 8).” The Salvation Controversy, page 122

I am looking for a magisterial document other than the Council of Trent that clearly states the teaching of the Church regarding “good works” and “justification” that I can use in defense of these statements. Both of these excellent apologists are under attack on another forum because a few other Catholics read the same words from the Council of Trent and arrive at the conclusion that works are meritorious prior to justification. (Akin cites Trent’s Doctrine of Justification, Chapter 8, as his authority; Martignoni also cites Trent.)

Does anyone have any suggestions?

A second person’s words will be in blue.

* * * * *

My friends John Martignoni (a partner of mine in my apostolate) and Jimmy Akin have written nothing incorrect. Their teaching is in total agreement with Catholic Church teaching, as I believe I will prove in the course of this paper.

Some folks who are raising a big stink about this appear to be confused about the nature of the heresy of Pelagianism (salvation by works), about merit in particular in relation to good works, and pre-regenerate good works vs. the extreme Calvinist position of total depravity: whereby man can do no good whatever prior to regeneration (as if an unregenerate man who saves someone’s life has actually done an evil thing and not a good thing). The Catholic position is quite distinguishable from that: we think man can do some good prior to regeneration, because God provides grace to do good, but he cannot merit or save himself in any way, shape, or form.

Once justified and regenerated by baptism, Catholics hold that we cooperate with grace to do good works which are meritorious: God rewarding His own gifts, as St. Augustine put it.

Let’s give John Martignoni the courtesy of citing some of the context of his words, if we insist on critiquing his position (I am glad that a link to his words was provided):

. . . we are not justified by our works. . . . the Catholic Church does not teach that we are justified by our works. . . . The Catholic Church teaches that one’s works are of absolutely no avail, unless one is already in a state of justification. . . . the Church clearly teaches that one must be in a state of grace…must be a member of the Body of Christ…must be already saved…must be already justified…for any personal works of theirs to have merit (in, through, and by Christ). [last four sets of ellipses in original]

So, to say that we believe we are justified by our personal works, when we teach that our personal works are of no use unless we are already justified, is the height of absurdity! If I’m not already in a state of justification, then my works don’t count for anything. They certainly do not justify me. . . . We’re already justified before we do a single work that counts for anything!

Works do not justify us. God’s grace does that. However, if we do not respond to God’s grace, with faith and works, then we can indeed lose our justification. Faith and works help us to hold on to what God has already given us. If we lose our faith, or if we do not do the works that God has prepared for us – we do not do the will of God for our lives – then we can lose the gift of justification…the gift of salvation…that God has given us through Baptism. [last two sets of ellipses also his own]

Now, the controversy and question at hand is whether good works can be meritorious prior to justification. This is how it was presented above, and it is exactly what Jimmy Akin was talking about (and John inasmuch as he did mention “merit” at least once and stated the same as Jimmy).

If these misguided critics are skeptical of the accuracy of John and Jimmy, perhaps they will accept the word of Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.: who was perhaps the most eminent catechist in America (I knew him personally: he received me into the Church and baptized my first two sons):


Divine reward for the practice of virtue. It is a Catholic doctrine that by his good works a person in the state of grace really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God. “The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be performed meritoriously” (II Council of Orange, Denzinger 388).

Certain conditions must be present to make supernatural merit possible. The meritorious work must be morally good, that is, in accordance with the moral law in its object, intent, and circumstances. It must be done freely, without any external coercion or internal necessity. It must be supernatural, that is, aroused and accompanied by actual grace, and proceeding from a supernatural motive. The person must be a wayfarer, here on earth, since no one can merit after death.

Strictly speaking only a person in the state of grace can merit, as defined by the Church (Denzinger 1576, 1582).

Merit depends on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting happiness the good works performed by his grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, a human being alone cannot make God his or her debtor, if God does not do so by his own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance is clear from his frequent promises, e.g., the Beatitudes and the prediction of the Last Judgment.

The object of supernatural merit is an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life (if the person dies in divine friendship), and an increase of heavenly glory. (Etym. Latin merces, hire, pay, reward.)

(Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, New York, 1980, 348, “Merit”; my bolded emphasis)

Fr. Hardon apparently had a different version of Denzinger than the one I have, and the one available online (i.e., a different numbering system). Canon 18 from the 2nd Council of Orange, or D 191, reads:

“That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done” [St. Prosper].

I believe this is the same one he cited, in a different translation. Note that a person must be in a “state of grace” before he can merit. And what exactly is that? Well, let’s let Fr. Hardon define it:


Condition of a person who is free from mortal sin and pleasing to God. It is the state of being in God’s friendship and the necessary condition of the soul at death in order to attain heaven.

(Ibid., p. 519)

This is essentially the same as being regenerated and justified, by virtue of baptism, as we see in Fr. Hardon’s further definitions:


The process of a sinner becoming justified or made right with God. As defined by the Council of Trent, “Justification is the change from the condition in which a person is born as a child of the first Adam into a state of grace and adoption among the children of God through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior” (Denzinger 1524). On the negative side, justification is a true removal of sin, and not merely having one’s sins ignored or no longer held against the sinner by God. On the positive side it is the supernatural sanctification and renewal of a person who thus becomes holy and pleasing to God and an heir of heaven.

The Catholic Church identifies five elements of justification, which collectively define its full meaning. The primary purpose of justification is the honor of God and of Christ; its secondary purpose is the eternal life of mankind. The main efficient cause or agent is the mercy of God; the main instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is called the “sacrament of faith” to spell out the necessity of faith for salvation. And that which constitutes justification or its essence is the justice of God, “not by which He is just Himself, but by which He makes us just,” namely sanctifying grace.

Depending on the sins from which a person is to be delivered, there are different kinds of justification. An infant is justified by baptism and the faith of the one who requests or confers the sacrament. Adults are justified for the first time either by personal faith, sorrow for sin and baptism, or by the perfect love of God, which is at least an implicit baptism of desire. Adults who have sinned gravely after being justified can receive justification by sacramental absolution or perfect contrition for their sins. (Etym. Latin justus, just + facere, to make, do: justificatio.)

(Ibid., pp. 301-302)


The grace by which a person is restored to God’s friendship, either for the first time, as in baptism, or after baptism, as in the sacrament of penance.

(Ibid., p. 302)

Conclusion: merit occurs only after being in a state of grace, or friendship with God = regeneration = justification (post-baptism). It’s inescapable.

I suspect, however, that the present confusion, seen in these questionings, also has somewhat to do with the distinction between condign and congruous merit. Fr. Hardon ties condign merit specifically, again, to the state of grace, or justification:


Due to a person for some good he has done. Generally applied to merit before God, who binds himself, as it were, to reward those who do his will. The conditions for condign merit are the state of grace and a morally good action. The beneficiary is the person who performs the good act and not someone else. Condign merit is based on the revealed fact that God has promised such a reward. Thus we condignly merit an increase of the virtue of faith by every act of faith we perform in the state of grace. (Etym. Latin con-, thoroughly + dignus, worthy: condignus, very worthy.)

(Ibid., p. 120)

But, most importantly for our discussion, he informs his readers that congruous or congruent merit, “is not precisely merit, but well-founded expectation”:


Also called appropriate merit, it is any good deed that deserves reward on any one or more of a variety of grounds, but not in strict justice or fidelity to a promise. Thus friendship, compassion, kindness, and responding to a request are grounds for congruent merit.

(Ibid., p. 125)


Equitable and proper that God should grant what is asked or expected of him. Commonly applied to merit, it is distinguished from merit strictly so called, the latter being known as condign. Congruous merit is not precisely merit, but well-founded expectation. It refers to “gaining merit” for others, obtaining from God what a person in the state of grave sin prays for, receiving the gift of final perseverance and, in general, all the blessings we are confident God will grant, without having the absolute assurance that he will do so. Congruous merit is associated with the divine goodness, where condign merit rather depends on God’s fidelity to his promises.

(Ibid., p. 125; my bolded emphases)

Ludwig Ott, in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, agrees:

The Council [of Trent] is speaking here of “true” merit (vere mereri: D 842 [Canon 32 on Justification] ), that is, of meritum de condigno. Cf. 835 et seq.

(p. 264; bracketed interjections my own)

He makes it clear that merit applies only to the justified:

By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God (De fide.)

(p. 264)

He cites the 2nd Council of Orange to this end (D 191, already cited above), and also the following Tridentine proclamations, from Denzinger:

Council of Trent: Decree on Justification

Chap. 16. The Fruit of Justification, that is, the Merit of Good Works, and the Reasonableness of that Merit [Denzinger 809]

To men, therefore, who have been justified in this respect, whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or have recovered it when lost, the words of the Apostle are to be submitted: “Abound in every good work, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” [1 Cor. 15:58]; “for God is not unjust, that he should forget your work and the love, which you have shown in his name” [Heb. 6:10], and: “Do not lose your confidence, which has a great reward” [Heb. 10:35]. And therefore to those who work well “unto the end” [Matt. 10:22], and who trust in God, life eternal is to be proposed, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, “and as a recompense” which is according to the promise of God Himself to be faithfully given to their good works and merits [can. 26 and 32]. For this is that “crown of justice which after his fight and course” the Apostle declared “was laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just judge and not only to him, but also to all that love his coming” [2 Tim. 4:7ff.]. For since Christ Jesus Himself as the “head into the members” [Eph. 4:15], and “as the vine into the branches” [John 15:5] continually infuses His virtue into the said justified, a virtue which always precedes their good works, and which accompanies and follows them, and without which they could in no wise be pleasing and meritorious before God [can. 2], we must believe that to those justified nothing more is wanting from being considered [can. 32] as having satisfied the divine law by those works which have been done in God according to the state of this life, and as having truly merited eternal life to be obtained in its own time (if they shall have departed this life in grace [Rev. 14:13]), since Christ our Lord says: “If anyone shall drink of the water, that I will give him, he shall not thirst forever, but it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting” [John 4:14]. Thus neither is “our own justice established as our own” from ourselves, nor is the justice of God [Rom. 10:3] “ignored” or repudiated; for that justice which is called ours, because we are justified [can. 10 and 11] through its inherence in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because it is infused into us by God through the merit of Christ.

(available online; my bolded emphases)

Canons on Justification

[Denzinger 836] Canon 26. If anyone shall say that the just ought not to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God and the merit of Jesus Christ for the good works which have been performed in God, if by doing well and in keeping the divine commandments they persevere even to the end: let him be anathema [cf. n. 809].

(available online; my bolded emphases)

[Denzinger 842] Canon 32. If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit [vere mereri] increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema [cf. n. 803 and 809].

(available online; my bolded emphasis and bracketed note)

Ott also confirms (per 2nd Orange and Trent) that only the justified can merit:

The meriting person must be . . In the state of grace (in statu gratiae), as far as merit properly so-called (meritum de condigno) is concerned. The teaching of the Council of Trent on merit refers exclusively to the just. D 836, 842. The contradictory teaching of Baius was rejected. D 1013 et seq. Jesus demands permanent association with Him as a condition for the bringing forth of supernatural fruits . . .

(Ott, ibid., p. 266)

Here are the teachings of Baius, or Michael du Bay (relevant to this topic) that were condemned by Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572) in the Bull Ex omnibus afflictionibus, Oct. 1, 1567:

[Denzinger 1002] 2. Just as an evil work by its nature is deserving of eternal death, so a good work by its own nature is meritorious of eternal life.

1004 4. Eternal life was promised to integral man and to the angel in view of good works, and good works in themselves from the law of nature suffice for attaining it.

1005 5. In the promise made both to the angel and to the first man is contained the disposition of natural justice, whereby for good works without any other regard eternal life is promised to the just.

1008 8. In the redeemed through the grace of Christ no good merit can be found, which may not be freely bestowed upon one who is unworthy.

1011 11. The fact that having lived piously and justly in this mortal life even to the end of life we attain eternal life, should not be imputed to the grace of God, but to the natural order instantly ordained in the beginning of creation by the just judgment of God; neither in this recompense of goods is regard paid to the merit of Christ, but only to the first institution of the human race, in which it is ordained by the natural law that by the just judgment of God eternal life is paid for obedience to His mandates.

1013 13. Good works, performed by the sons of adoption, do not receive a consideration of merit from the fact that they are done through the spirit of adoption which lives in the hearts of the sons of God, but only from the fact that they are conformable to law, and because through them obedience is preferred to law.

1015 15. The reason of merit does not consist in this, that he who works well should have grace and the indwelling Holy Spirit, but in this only, that he obeys the divine law.

(available online)

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Baius’ errors:

The gifts of primitive innocence, forfeited by original sin, are restored by Jesus Christ. Then and then only do they become graces, not, indeed, on account of their supernatural character, but because of fallen man’s positive unworthiness. Aided by grace, the redeemed can perform virtuous actions and acquire merits for heaven. Does that entail a higher status, an inner renovation or sanctifying grace?—Baius does not consider it necessary. Moral action, whether called justice, or charity, or obedience to the law, is the sole instrument of justification and virtue and merit. The rôle of grace consists exclusively in keeping concupiscence under control, and in thus enabling us to perform moral actions and fulfil the law. True, Baius speaks of the remission of sin as necessary for justification, but this is only a fictio iuris; in fact, a catechumen before baptism, or a penitent before absolution may, by simply
keeping the precepts, have more charity than certain so-called just men. . . .

A mere glance at the above sketch cannot fail to reveal a strange mixture of Pelagianism, Calvinism, and even Socinianism. Baius is a Pelagian in his concept of the primitive state of man. He is a Calvinist in his presentation of the downfall. He is more than a Lutheran and little short of the Socinian in his theory of Redemption.

(“Michel Baius”)

Ott does, however, leave a little “window” of the operations in some fashion, of congruent merit in the unregenerate or unjustified man (keep in mind that earlier he denied that congruent merit was merit “properly so-called”):

Object of Meritum de Congruo

There is no definite doctrinal decision in this matter. The concept meritum de congruo is not without ambiguity, inasmuch as the claim arising from it can be greater or less, hence the opinions of theologians are divided.

a) Meritum de congruo and the sinner.

A person in mortal sin can merit de congruo, by his free co-operation with actual grace, further actual graces in preparation for justification, and finally the grace of justification itself. (Sent. probabilis).

(Ibid., p. 268)

This is classified under “probable” opinions, which are not even yet certain, let alone binding on the faithful. But condign merit, as applied to the justified, is a de fide dogma (the highest level of certainty):

Object of Meritum de Condigno

A just man merits for himself through each good work an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an increase of heavenly glory. (De fide.)

(Ibid., p. 267; bolding his own)

The matter is, thus, entirely settled by Holy Mother Church, whose authority alone is, or should be, quite sufficient for any professed Catholic, to resolve the question without further discussion.

For further information on merit, see the Catechism: 2006-2011, 2020, 2022, 2025-2027.

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

Jimmy Akin is also seen to be exactly right in what he stated. My only quibble with him would be to say that Trent’s Decree on Justification, chapter 8 (that he cited) is less directly applicable to the immediate point at hand than Chapter 16 and Canon 26, cited above. But that is only a minor question of how to best defend a doctrine from Trent. He has the doctrine entirely correct.

* * *

And continuing to exercise His faith, we do good works in obedience to His Word. And one of those good works is submitting to Baptism. Submitting to God’s saving work in us.

More than likely, if we don’t have faith in God, we won’t be baptized. But if we are baptized without faith, is that baptism effective?

Yes, of course. But here again you are a bit confused. Most Catholics are baptized as babies; thus below the age of reason, and not in any position to agree, let alone submit or understand at all, to what is taking place. The “faith” being exercised is that of the parents and the sponsors, who are, of course, regenerated and justified through their own baptisms. Your position, on the other hand, is almost the equivalent of the Baptist position of adult or “believer’s” baptism, with full consent and understanding of the person being baptized. Not even Lutherans or Anglicans believe that. And other groups agree with infant baptism, while denying that it regenerates (e.g., Presbyterians).

As evidence, we can see that Cornelius was called a “just” man by the Word of God before he was baptized. I can’t imagine him thus being designated in Scripture if he hadn’t pleased God. In fact, why would God justify anyone in whom He weren’t pleased?

This is “just” meaning “naturally good,” not “justified” (which is a more technical sense. Catholics deny total depravity. We agree that unregenerate man is capable of a measure of good by his natural lights, and being made in the image of God, and possessing a conscience (Romans 2).

You confuse prevenient grace with merit, even though in your own presentation, they are juxtaposed against each other:

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called.

(Trent; somewhere; you provide no number, and I’m too lazy to look it up)

By freely assenting and cooperating with God’s grace for our justification.

Yes, entirely by means of prevenient grace.

Whether this has anything to do with merit, I don’t know.

It doesn’t, as shown above, in great detail.

So, it seems to me that the Church teaches that our works do avail and in fact are necessary for our justification.

No, it teaches, rather, that good works can be truly good before regeneration and justification (over against total depravity), but not that they can in any sense justify us or be meritorious. Good works done after justification are (if certain conditions are met) meritorious and can contribute to salvation and attainment of eternal life, but only hand-in-hand with, soaked in, enabled by, grace, which alone saves us. Catholics believe in sola gratia. But it is a faith that is not separated from works (per James). Faith inherently includes these works (even Luther and Calvin agree with that). But we’re not saved by faith alone (that’s where Protestantism errs); we’re saved by grace alone. That is the Catholic teaching.

The pro apologists in question deny that prior to justification we can earn or do anything good at all.

This is untrue, and is a distortion of what they teach. They deny (condign, or “true”) merit before justification, which they well should, because Trent teaches that. They don’t deny that man can do anything good whatsoever before justification. That would be total depravity, which the Church (including Trent) has often condemned. John Martignoni’s statement was yanked out of context, so that some folks are apparently taking it to be an espousal of total depravity. But this is incorrect. In context, he is talking about whether works by an unregenerate man can either justify or merit. They can’t do either. To say that they are intrinsically evil, however, as Luther and Calvin would hold, is a quite different matter. John isn’t teaching that, nor is Jimmy.

The Church’s teaching against total depravity is very clear. Ludwig Ott outlines it:

a) Even in the fallen state, man can, by his natural intellectual power, know religious and moral truths. (De fide.)

[cites Denzinger 788, 793, 815, 1391, 1398, 1785, 1806, 2145]

(Ibid., pp. 233-234)

b) For the performance of a morally good action Sanctifying Grace is not required. (De fide.)

Although the sinner does not possess the grace of justification, he can still perform morally good actions and, with the help of actual grace, even supernaturally good (though not meritorious) works, and through them prepare himself for justification. Thus all works of the person in mortal sin are not sins . . . D 817; cf. 1035, 1040, 1399.

(Ibid., p. 234)

c) The Grace of Faith is not necessary for the performance of a morally good action. (Sent. certa.)

Even infidels can do morally good works. Thus not all works of infidels are sins . . . D 1025; cf. 1298.

(Ibid., p. 234)

d) Actual Grace is not necessary for the performance of a morally good action. (Sent. certa.)

Fallen man can perform good works without the help of Divine grace, by his natural powers alone. Therefore not all works which are achieved without actual grace are sins . . . D 1027; cf. 1037, 1389.

(Ibid., p. 235)

Bottom line: this is much ado about nothing. Properly understood, my friends John and Jimmy have stated or taught nothing contrary to Catholic dogma. The confusion comes from not sufficiently distinguishing between several related elements in Catholic teaching. It happens all the time. That’s why we always have to go back to those dogmatic Church teachings and make sure we fully understand them: what they are saying and what they are not saying.


Meta Description: Explanation of the fine points of the notion of merit in Catholic theology. It’s NOT “salvation by works.”

Meta Keywords: salvation, Catholic soteriology, merit, co-laborers with God, synergy, free will, faith and works, good works, grace

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