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We need to be clear about something.
What we do on our own cannot obtain anything from God on its own merits. To paraphrase St. Augustine when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own merits in us.
We have here a pairing of words which are, so to speak, two sides of the one and same coin: meritum and praemium.
Meritum or “merit” is the right to a reward (praemium) due to some work done. Supernatural merit is the right to a reward for a work God determines is good and which is done for His sake. This sort of work must be supernatural in its origin, that is, it is done under the influence of grace, and supernatural in its purpose. God alone is the source of supernatural good and therefore He must designate it as such.
Consider the consecration in Holy Mass which contains the command of Jesus at the Last Supper and His description of what His commands lead to. Christ tells us that consuming His Body and Blood are for eternal life (cf. John 6). He commanded His Apostles to do what he was doing. If we do what He commands for His sake and the reasons He described, then we merit the reward God designates. The vocabulary (devotio, servitus, meritum, praemium) boldly communicates the truth of our stance before God.
Non-Catholics often think that when Catholics talk about merit, we are saying we can earn salvation by performing good works.The Church doesn’t teach this.
The Council of Trent said that
“none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace” (13 January 1547 Session VI, Decree on Justification 8, cf. Rom 11:6).
Holy Church teaches that Christ alone merits anything in the strictest sense. Man by himself does not merit supernatural rewards (cf. CCC 2007).When moved by grace we do those things God promised to reward (cf. Rom 2:6–11 and Gal 6:6–10). God’s grace and His promises are the source of all our merit (CCC 2008). We must make a distinction between condign merit, awarded because it is fully deserved and our action was proportioned to the reward, and congruent merit, awarded by God’s generosity for imperfect works.
The Bishop of Hippo St. Augustine (+430) eloquently teaches (ep. 194, 19 – read this out loud):
“What, therefore, before grace is man’s merit, by which merit he receives except by grace and since God crowns nothing other than His own gifts when He crowns our merits?”
The theology of this teaching, even the key phrase of Augustine, is in Preface “de sanctis” – (De gloria Sanctorum): “…et, eorum coronando merita, tua dona coronas….”
Clearly the Church continues faithfully to hold to her traditional theology of merit and grace.