What is the difference between strict merit, condign merit and incongruent merit in Roman Catholicism?

by Matt Slick

Roman Catholicism has defined various aspects of merit. Merit is the "property of a good work which entitles the doer to receive a reward."1 In the Catholic system of rewards for works accomplished, rewards contribute to a person's salvation. Three main categories of merit have been defined below.

  • Strict Merit would be a reward to a person for an action that he performed. The reward is directly related, and also necessarily owed, to that person because of the work he has accomplished. An example would be a specific wage that is owed to a person for a specific amount of work. If the reward is not given, then that is wrong.
  • Condign Merit is God's reward for a work accomplished by a person who does His will. God has bound himself to reward the person for work that is accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit. This reward is owed because God has bound himself to reward those who do his will, not that they deserve it or have earned it in a strict sense. Instead, God has promised to reward certain actions, and when those actions are performed the reward is required on God's part. Therefore, the person should receive the reward, and if it is withheld then that is wrong.
  • Congruent Merit depends on the kindness and desire of the one giving the merit. It is a reward that is undeserved, not owed. An example would be if my daughter cleaned up the living room and I took her out to get ice cream as a reward. The ice cream is not owed to her, but she "merited" the reward by her effort. If I do not take her out for ice cream, I've done nothing wrong.

In order to help understand this better, consider the following chart.

Type of Merit Definition Example Is the person obligated to reward? Owed/
Earned
If the reward is not given, then it is
Strict
Merit
Reward due to an agreement or necessary and exact recompense due to a work. Working for a wage at an hourly rate gets you an exact reward, a paycheck. Yes
Obligated
Reward
 is strictly earned and owed
Not Just
Condign
Merit
Reward for an action because of God's promise to reward good works performed by a person who is in God's grace and is also accomplishing God's will.  Honoring your parents so you have the reward of a blessing from God since God said you'd be blessed for honoring your parents.  Therefore, God must give the reward. Yes
Obligated
Reward
 is not strictly  earned, but it is owed
Not Just
Congruent
Merit
Reward for an action based on the kindness and desire of the one giving the merit. It is a reward that is not owed. It is based on the kindness of the one who gives the reward. You clean your parent's house though it was not required, and they reward you with ice cream.  Not Obligated
Reward is not strictly earned or owed Just

 

In Roman Catholicism, salvation is achieved through participation in the sacraments where grace is infused into the person. This infused grace makes the person "more" righteous with God because it is the amount of grace in a person that results in his righteousness before God. Therefore, in order to remain in a state of grace, the Catholics are taught to perform works which contribute to salvation. However, the works are not said to be a strict merit, but rather a condign merit where God grants salvation/grace/righteousness out of the kindness of his own heart that is manifested through the faithful works of the believing Roman Catholic.

The problem with this is that it has led Roman Catholic theology to teach that salvation is attained and maintained by obedience to commandments - which are works.

  • "The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God." (Catechism of the Catholic Church 816).
  • "The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; 28 the Second Vatican Council confirms: "The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments," (CCC, par 2068,  http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2.htm)
  • "The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God," (CCC 2036).
  • The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law. It is made known to us by divine revelation and by human reason," (CCC 2080).

Conclusion

The differentiation between strict, condign, and congruent merit in Roman Catholic theology does not alleviate the problem of their seeking to achieve salvation through the keeping of the commandments, which is the Roman Catholic position as is verified in the quotes above. In contrast to this, the Scriptures clearly teach that justification (our right standing with God) is by faith only and not by any works.

  • Romans 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
  • Romans 4:1-5 "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness."
  • 1. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10202b.htm

 

 

 

 
 
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