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Our Lady’s Co-meriting

Updated: May 29, 2020

Buying and selling belong to the so-called contracts of exchange, buyer and seller exchange definite objects, and as in accordance with the virtue of justice we are each obliged to give what is ours in proportion to our rights, the objects to be exchanged must represent an approximately equal value, and therefore, in the nature of things all kinds of factors are drawn into the calculation. The same happens with merits and reward. Here too there is a contract of exchange in question, but with this difference that the one who merits offers no objects for exchange, but offers his activity in exchange for the reward which may or may not consist in an object.

But justice is a virtue that regulates the attitude of men to one another, and therefore in the strict sense of the word we can be just only with regard to another. If there is anything lacking in this respect, so that there is no question of another in the full meaning of the word, that will entail special consequences.

Such a case is that of a child who is still young. It is not yet independent: it still belongs to its father, and therefore neither father nor child can count as separate from one another. So that if a child under age is on his father’s payroll, not only the youth himself, but his work belongs to his father. That son cannot claim any wages in virtue of justice, as can other workers in the same employment. He could lay claim to wages only in so far as his father had promised them and is therefore obliged to pay them in virtue of fidelity to his promise.

But far more closely than a child under age belongs to his father, does the creature belong to God. It will never be able to lay claim to any remuneration in the name of justice. The only question of reward would be in as far as God had promised it of his own free will, and hence owes it to himself to make good his promise.

So that if we speak of human merits in connection with God, these can never be the same kind of merits as men have in respect to one another, for man, with all he has and all he does, belongs wholly and unreservedly to God.

The 19th Ecumenical Council of Trent teaches us on this subject that God, for the sake of Jesus’ Passion, gave us grace, by which we can effectively merit: increase of the same grace, eternal life, the winning of that eternal life (on condition of dying in the state of grace), and increase of heavenly glory. (Denzinger 842)

In his omnipotence, God promised us that reward for the works we should accomplish by the strength of grace. They are really merits, but they do not depend on justice but on God’s free promise, and hence it is necessary to make a restriction: they are indeed merits, but they are not that alone and nothing else, and consequently we call them merits in a limited respect, namely in consideration of God’s free promise.

There is a great difference to be found between our merits and those of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The first difference concerns this very point. The relations of the three divine Persons are in the fullest sense those of “another to another.”

What Jesus merits is therefore not only real merit, but also real merit simply and unreservedly; thus the eternal Father is bound not only to himself but also to Jesus to give him the reward agreed upon, and that without a preliminary free promise.

Hence if we compare our human merits with those of Jesus, ours are completely cancelled out. And this is the more conclusive that our merits are only real merits in virtue of the grace given to us by God for that purpose. But that very grace that makes our good works really meritorious is merited for us by Jesus, so that our merits depend entirely on his. We cannot object here that Jesus accomplished our salvation as Man, and that his human deeds, if they were to merit a supernatural reward, had to derive their value also from grace. This is perfectly true, but is not an objection.

Even Jesus would not have been able to merit without grace (Ver. 29: 5 ad 4 um) and that for the reasons stated. But whereas we receive grace from God’s mercy, the Man Jesus enriched himself with grace. The possession of grace is thus of very great importance even for the Man Jesus, but it in no respect weakens the meritorious character of his deeds: for of him it is fully true that he merits by his own power.

The second difference regards the value of the merits.

Jesus’ actions are human in virtue of his human nature, and they are supernatural in virtue of grace, but they are theandric in virtue of the divine personality of this Man. This divine Person possesses infinite divine majesty and dignity, and consequently the actions of this Man are at the same time human actions, and supernatural human actions, and human supernatural actions of positive, unlimited, moral value.

Hence Jesus’ merits can balance an equally limitless supernatural reward. Whatever God might decide to give for the sake of Christ’s merits to the men of all ages, places, races, peoples and languages, these gifts could never excel the value of Jesus’ merits: “And where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom. 5:20).

With regard to the equivalence of our merits the position is quite different. It is obviously unnecessary to demonstrate that there cannot be the same weight of value in quenching the thirst of a man for love of God, as in eternal glory. And yet by that one good work we can really earn that glory! Where then is the balance between merit and reward?

The term equality is multivocal: but on the grounds of similarity in quantity we speak of geometrical equality: a cube is as long as it is broad or deep. And so there is equality between merit and reward when the same value is present in both, whether it be expressed in money or otherwise. Jesus’ merits might therefore be better called super-abundant, since they contain a greater value than the reward as we have shown.

Besides geometrical equality we know arithmetical equality, which is based not on similarity in quantity but on proportion. Geometrically the numbers 75 and 45 are quite different, for 75 represents more value than the other. But another equality exists between these numbers, i.e. that of proportion, for just as 75 is three times 25, so 45 is three times 15. We express this in the formula 75 : 25 = 45 : 15 and read: as 75 is to 25, so is 45 to 15, so there is actually a similarity, but it is one of proportion.

Hence when we speak of merits according to equivalence, we do not mean according to geometrical likeness, nevertheless the expression is useful as likeness of proportion is intended: it is not more difficult for God to give us the reward of eternal life, than it is for us to do a good work by virtue of grace. According to God’s promise, our works are meritorious, but it is in virtue of his grace that those meritorious works are equivalent to the reward. The proportionate equality between our merits and the reward granted to them is created by grace: therefore that equivalence cannot reach further than the grace which is its principle. God gave us that grace that we might reach heaven by it, but not in order to bring others to heaven by it. Hence grace makes it possible for us to merit salvation de condigno for ourselves, but not for others.

We have already mentioned that among adults, there is always, in the nature of things, a balance between merit and reward. Nevertheless we distinguish, besides these merits based on justice, others, based not on justice but on fittingness. We find this present, for instance, where a real reason can be adduced on behalf of the employee for his reception of a greater wage than is due in strict justice to his performance considered in itself. Here then, there is no question of a right based on justice, but rather of fairness. Such a claim is present when a worker has been in service for a long time, for length of time brings its special difficulties with it (think of the so-called bonuses given at jubilees); or else when a worker has done a certain task in a particularly satisfactory way. The increased wage is not a combination of wage and alms, or of wage and present, but it is entirely wage; which is why besides merit according to equivalence we speak of merit according to suitability—de congruo.

Similarly we can exercise influence with regard to the salvation of others. For on our side it can be advanced on the grounds of fairness that our merits, although as we said, they are never equivalent to the salvation of others, may yet demand that salvation as a reward. That fairness is founded on the friendship between God and man. Friendship is not a one-sided but a mutual love. But love is wishing the good of another and therefore promoting, as far as in us lies, the good of him who is the object of this love. Consequently real friends try as much as they can to do one another’s will; and they will have a right to this: the right of friendship which is allied to the cardinal virtue of justice. Hence, since the theological virtue of charity is a true friendship between God and man, we shall find in it the argument we are seeking for fairness, for it is fair, that just as the man in a state of grace fulfils the will of God, his friend, as far as his weak strength permits, in like manner God should fulfill the will

of that man, his friend, but then of course according to his almighty power.

So that the core of the matter lies here: one single act suffices for merits de condigno, for one single cup of water given to the thirsty for love of God, or one mouthful of bread, merits heaven for us. But one single act is not enough for the merit de congruo. That will vary in accordance with the length and breadth and height and depth of the friendship. Where the friendship is firmly established, the fairness of God’s fulfilling the man’s wish (e.g. with reference to the salvation of others) will be all the greater, and consequently the merits based on that fairness will be so much more valuable than when the friendship is weak and unstable.

* * * * *

In the light of all this, we cannot but find a very great difference between Mary’s merits and ours. Her merits de condigno are inexpressibly superior to ours. For their foundation is sanctifying grace, in which they originate and which creates their equality with the supernatural reward. But… the fullness of grace bestowed on Mary is so great that it far surpasses the plenitude of the greatest saint, and of all the others with him. The merits of all the other saints, angels as well as men, must thus be necessarily inferior to Mary’s.

This is true in an even higher degree of Mary’s merits de congruo. The theological virtue of charity is an attribute of sanctifying grace: Mary’s friendship with God must therefore be unspeakably closer than that of other saints ever can be. Hence the fitness of the greater recompense to be awarded, based as it is precisely upon the right of friendship, must be greater in the same proportion. Moreover, Mary’s friendship with God knew no ebb and flow: it was never disturbed or weakened, for all through her life she avoided even the least sin, so that always and everywhere and in everything she fulfilled God’s will entirely. In that case the right of friendship demands that God in his turn should also fulfill Mary’s will entirely always and everywhere, for that is fair in the highest degree.

Immeasurable as is the distance between Mary’s merits and ours, so that we need not try to avoid the expressions unspeakable, inexpressible, unutterable, yet the difference between Jesus’ merits and hers is far greater; here we replace immeasurable by infinite!

Mary is a pure creature: all her merits in the sight of God are based on his free promise, so that in contrast with Jesus’ merits Mary’s, just like ours, are only merits in a certain respect.

Consequently Mary’s merits are based on the proportion of relation: there is merely arithmetical equality, but no geometrical preponderance as in Jesus’ case.

Thirdly, all Mary’s merits, just like ours, are based in the last resort on those of Jesus, as even she received grace with a view to the merits of her Son.

Hence we shall do well to keep these two rules before our eyes during the explanations which follow.

Whatever merits we may ascribe to Mary with respect to our salvation, it will never be possible to rob Jesus in doing so, for every merit of Mary’s presupposes a still greater one belonging to Jesus, which is the prop and stay of hers. Further, whatever value we may attribute to Mary’s merits it will always be true that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men, and that all of us, including Mary, depend on him. In comparison with his work, Mary’s disappears entirely, for no proportion is possible between inexpressible value (Mary) and positively infinite value (Jesus), for the infinite has absolutely no ratio to the finite.

Did Mary Merit the Incarnation?

As we have already said, our mother cannot be replaced by anyone else. For not only our soul, but also our body is part of our personality: the human person is composed of both. This body is composed of material borrowed from our parents, and therefore had our father married another woman or our mother another man, one of the component elements of our personality, the very matter that is the principle of our individuation, would be replaced by some other matter, and therefore not this person but another would have come into existence.

But Jesus is a divine Person who has existed from all eternity, and so in no way composed of a soul created by God and a substance taken from Mary. Hence it was all the same for the Son of God at the Incarnation to be born of any woman whatever. Therefore in this mystery there are two questions which must be carefully distinguished. The first question regards the nature of the Incarnation: has the Son of God a Mother?—i.e., did the Son of God become man by conception and birth? The other concerns a circumstance of the Incarnation: has the Son of God Mary for his Mother? Did he assume his human nature from Mary by conception and birth? With reference to Mary’s merits, both these questions can be expressed as follows. One can raise the point: did Mary and not only she alone, merit the fact of the Incarnation, that is: did Mary and others with her, merit that the Son of God should become man? And further, did Mary merit to be the woman from whom the Son of God chose to be born? So that this is a question as to one of the circumstances of the Incarnation.

Let us take this last question first: did Mary merit that the Incarnation should take place through her? This may be understood in two ways and first of all with reference to God’s choice of her for the divine maternity: did Mary merit being chosen to be the Mother of God? We can make this clearer by recalling the story in the Book of Esther: after the repudiation of his queen Vashthi, Assuerus began to brood, and he was advised to have beautiful maidens sought throughout his kingdom, and to take as his queen the one who pleased him best. This was done, and Esther became queen for she deserved to be chosen on account of her beauty (Esth. 2:1-17).

Briefly, Mary could not merit this. For… her divine maternity is the summit towards which converge all the graces and privileges bestowed on her in this life and in the next. But no merits are possible without grace. So that, if Mary’s divine motherhood is the principle of all her graces, then it must also be the principle of her merits, which would be a contradiction in terms. Mary therefore to be chosen so as to be able to merit, and at the same time not chosen if it was to be a result of her merits. And this is in perfect agreement with what we said in 1, 1, §4, i.e. that God predestined both Jesus and Mary in one and the same decree: Jesus to have Mary for his Mother, and Mary to have Jesus for her Son. So that we cannot assume the decree of the Incarnation and then ask as well whether Mary merited to be chosen as Mother of God, for that decree contains not only the Incarnation of God’s Son, but also the Incarnation through Mary.

We may certainly ask, however, whether, in the order of realization, Mary had to acquire by merit the divine maternity for which she had been chosen gratuitously.

Here an excellent parallel may be drawn with our own predestination. The reader probably knows that not all theologians agree on this difficult question, and this is not the place to enter further into it. But all theologians agree about that part that is a dogma of faith: the human beings chosen by God for heaven must, in the order of realization, acquire that heaven by their merits. Many hold the opinion that the prevision of these merits may not be given as a reason for God’s choice of these men.

In other words: God’s free, sovereign, autonomous will, independently of any merits foreseen or not, chose this particular man to go into heaven; but that same will of God determined that this man, chosen gratuitously, should nevertheless in actual fact be obliged to earn his heaven, by deserving, with the help of the grace placed at his disposal gratis, for the sake of Jesus’ merits.

Predestination itself is thus independent of those merits, but it is on the other hand cause of several effects which again are interdependent. By virtue of this predestination: heaven becomes the final end of merits (we merit in order to get to heaven); merits, on the contrary, become the efficient cause of the reward (they make us worthy to attain heaven); grace becomes the principle of merit (by grace we can merit). Grace, merits and heaven are the consequences of free predestination, and thus cannot be its cause, but these consequences are interdependent. So that there is really no contradiction at all in saying that we are chosen gratuitously for the reward, and nevertheless we must earn it.

When we speak of Mary’s merits in connection with the earning of her divine motherhood, one thing is certain: they are not merits de condigno. In the case of these, as we said, there must be a balance between merit and reward. But the principle that effects the balance between human merits and the divine, supernatural reward is sanctifying grace. In the present economy of salvation, God has given us this grace in order to win heaven with it, i.e. the Beatific Vision of God. Grace thus creates a balance between the good work performed by virtue of this grace and the supernatural reward, which consists in union with God by the supernatural intellectual contemplation of him, with the love corresponding to it.

The divine Motherhood is also a union with God but of a quite different kind. It is a family relation, characterized like all other relations by the term to which it is directed; thus in the case of the divine motherhood, by the divine Person of the Word. Hence union with God by the divine motherhood not only raises Mary into the supernatural order, but raises her above all other supernatural union with God, and it is surpassed only by the hypostatic union. Therefore… Mary’s motherhood considered in itself is of greater value than the whole treasure of her graces; and that consequently Mary’s own beatific vision of God is no final term for her, but simply a preparation for something higher: her motherhood.

So that, although sanctifying grace creates a balance between human supernatural good works and the Beatific Vision, it will be insufficient to make a balance between these same good works and a reward on a higher plane. Hence it is out of the question that Mary should have merited her motherhood de condigno by her good works.

But if merits de condigno are lacking from want of balance only, this does not prevent merits de congruo from being present. For these do not depend on such a balance, but on the fitness brought in by the right of friendship. The reward, the divine motherhood, might then far surpass the achievement itself, but friendship and its rights will justify the excess of the reward.

Of course it is true that the word merit can be used in a metaphorical sense (fruitful ground merits or deserves to be cultivated), but it does not seem obligatory for us to understand the expressions of tradition and of the Church in this remote sense.

Hence we can say: in virtue of the grace given to her gratuitously, Mary gained true merits; and in such a way that she deserved de condigno to increase continually in grace, and so to arrive at the measure of purity and spirituality befitting the Mother of God. Thus she merited this growth in grace de condigno, as we can also, but the purity and spirituality thus gained merited for her de congruo the actual attainment of the divine motherhood, to which she was gratuitously predestined.

* * * * *

Mary merited de congruo the following circumstances of the Incarnation, namely, that God’s Son took his human nature from her. The first question still remains: did she also merit the Incarnation itself?

This question does not concern Mary alone, but also all the other saints who preceded the Incarnation in time. Obviously nothing but the actual realization of the divine decree is in question here. For it is utterly impossible that the good works of any creature whatsoever could be the cause, or even merely the occasion of God’s decision that his Son should be born of a woman.

So that the only thing to be discussed here is whether anyone could have deserved the execution of this autonomous and freely-made divine decree. It is thus parallel to Mary’s merits with respect to the obtention of the divine maternity for which she was

gratuitously chosen.

It is also obvious that there cannot be any question of merits de condigno here. For if grace, which is the principle of merit, is insufficient to hold the balance between good works and the divine motherhood, then the same grace will surely be insufficient to create a balance with something of infinitely greater moment: the hypostatic union.

Here we must again put a question: if merits de condigno are lacking for want of equality, can there perhaps exist merits de congruo?

Renowned theologians have indeed supported the view that the patriarchs of the Old Testament merited the Incarnation de congruo. They distinguished carefully between the acquirement of grace and the intrinsic value of the grace acquired. The holy patriarchs obtained grace from God because of the Incarnation as final cause (read: in honor of Jesus Christ); but the grace once acquired contained such value in itself, that it sufficed to support merits which claimed the realization of the decree. Incarnation and merits of the patriarchs stood in exactly the same relation to one another as Mary’s divine maternity and her merits, or as our salvation and our merits: salvation, motherhood and Incarnation are the final cause of the merits but conversely they make the merits sufficient.

The theologians to whom we refer were in no way wrong in their thesis: the Incarnation or, better still, the incarnate Word, is the final cause of grace, of merits and of the whole of salvation; but they did not add, as we quite certainly do, that the incarnate Word is, besides that, the meritorious cause of all that exists. Light upon this is given to us in the Bull declaring Mary’s Immaculate Conception a dogma. In the text… it is proposed to us as a matter of faith that Mary received this exceptional privilege “with a view to the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race.” So that Mary received sanctifying grace, the principle of her merits, not only for the honor of Jesus (final cause), but also on account of his merits. The incarnate Word of God is the meritorious cause of grace, and therefore grace cannot be the principle of merit of the Incarnation: for different causes can influence one another, but never on the same plane. That would be self-contradictory.

In other words, here we have again to appeal to the truth that the principle of merits cannot be at the same time their fruit. As none of us can merit sanctifying grace (though we can of course merit its increase) because such a man would need to possess that grace in order to be able to merit it, and at the same time he would have to be without it in order to acquire it; much less can the Incarnation be a fruit of merits, as the incarnate Word himself is precisely that first principle of every grace and every merit.

Let no one now appeal to the fact that the patriarchs already received grace long before Christ was born, while he did not merit it until long after they were gathered to their fathers.

God is eternal: he knows no past and no future, but exists in the one indivisible now of eternity, to which every moment of time corresponds. Hence everything that happens in time, however far apart from other things also in time, is present in God.

At the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the merits of the Word incarnate were not less present to God than those of the patriarchs. There is therefore no imaginable reason that the merits of the latter should be able to make their influence felt in their times but not those of Christ. But only one of these two things is possible: eitherthe merits of the patriarchs move God—I am using human language—to execute the decree of the Incarnation; or else the Word incarnate induces God to give the patriarchs the grace by which they may merit. It is impossible to maintain both at the same time, as it would involve a contradiction in terms, and would thus be impossible even to almighty God. For in that case, the patriarchs would have to possess the grace in order to merit it, and at the same time be without it because it must come afterwards as fruit of what the patriarchs must merit. If then it is definitely established by the obvious meaning of the Bull declaring the Immaculate Conception a dogma, that the incarnate Word is the meritorious cause of all grace ever bestowed on men since the fall, then any possibility on man’s side of meriting with respect to the fact of the Incarnation is utterly excluded. And it does not make the least difference here whether we mean merits de condigno or de congruo, for both depend on grace.

But if the Blessed Virgin could merit this special circumstance of the Incarnation, i.e. that it should come about through her, then there is a possibility that other circumstances of it were also merited de congruo. Hence it is generally accepted that God, for the sake of the prayers and good works, i.e. the merits, of the saints of the Old Covenant, and first of all Mary’s, advanced the time when the decree of the Incarnation was to be carried out. The Incarnation thus took place earlier in time than would have been the case had it not been advanced. Therefore St Thomas writes: “They did not pray for the Incarnation, which they firmly believed would come but they prayed that it might take place sooner”; just as he writes of Mary: “The Blessed Virgin did not merit the Incarnation, but, presuming the Incarnation, she merited that it should happen through her” (III Sent. 4.3.1. ad 4 um and ad 6 um).

But if we take the word “merit” in the metaphorical sense which we touched on above (a healthy place deserves to be dwelt in) then clearly the saints of the Old Covenant did merit the Incarnation, but then in the nature of things we cannot inquire further about the kind of merits. We can attach no other significance to this metaphorical sense than that on man’s side all was fulfilled which, according to God’s ordinance, had to happen before the fullness of time had come.

If we put together all we have said in a short schema, we answer the question put broadly: did Mary merit the holy Incarnation of God’s Son? by making the following distinctions :

I. The Incarnation considered in its essence:

1. in the order of purpose (the decree of the Incarnation): no.

2. in the order of execution (the realization of the decree):

de condigno: no.

de congruo: no.

in a metaphorical sense: yes.

II. The circumstances of the Incarnation:

1. in the order of purpose (the choice): no.

2. in the order of execution (the acquisition of motherhood):

de condigno: no.

de congruo: yes.

What Did Mary Merit for Us?

We have already pointed out the immeasurable distance between the value of Mary’s merits and ours. But the difference will seem far greater upon closer inspection of the object of the merits.

On this point theologians frequently appeal to the well-known words from Pius X’s encyclical Ad diem illum, which I translate as follows:

As Mary excels all men in holiness and union with Christ, and was associated by Christ with himself in the work of man’s salvation, she merited for us de congruo, as it is called, what Christ merited de condigno.

I shall justify in detail the translation of promeret nobis by “merited for us” and not by “merits for us.”

Bittremieux is quite right in saying that in Latin the present tense often takes the place of the past perfect, and that the use of the present tense in speaking of Mary and of the past perfect in speaking of Christ (promeret… promeruit) in no way proves by itself that the Pope meant that Christ merited for us during his earthly life, but that now Mary is meriting for us in heaven.

Besides, it is incredible that the Pope should not have known that the opinion of some theologians about meriting in heaven was completely out of date.

Thirdly: the opinion as to Mary’s redemptive merits did not come into being as a result of the Pope’s words, but had already obtained right of citizenship among theologians as long ago as the sixteenth century. Moreover, in the same year in which the encyclical appeared (1904), a theologian well-known in Vatican circles, E. Hugon, published his Marie Mère de grace, and in it was able to call the aforesaid opinion a generally accepted axiom. This makes it most improbable that the Pope, in using the terminology of that axiom, and in alluding to it with the words as it is called, would be using it to cover an out-of-date opinion about heavenly merits.

There is however another consideration which must not be underrated. The different Popes, to whose authority the world appeals on this question, apply both the above-named phases of the work of Redemption to Mary, but join both phases of her co-operation with a causal conjunction. Leo XIII uses “likewise”: if Mary helped with the completion of the mystery of the Redemption, she likewise distributes the graces which continue to flow from it (Adiutricem populi). Everyone knows Benedict XV’s words in Inter Sodalicia which have become famous: that one can rightly say Mary redeemed the human race with Jesus. And for this very reason, the redemptive graces are distributed by Mary’s hands. Pius XI teaches categorically that the help of our Lady in our last moments preserves from eternal death, but that this is based upon the fact that the sorrowful Virgin shared the work of redemption with Jesus Christ (Explorata res).

We find the same thoughts in Pius X: Mary is distributor of graces because she earned them with Jesus.

In the encyclical we are discussing here (Ad diem illum), the Pope reminds us of the praise due to the Mother of God for giving birth to, feeding, bringing up, protecting and leading to the altar the Lamb for the sacrifice, and adds these splendid words:

Hence the uninterrupted union in living and suffering between Mother and Son, so that the words of the Prophet apply equally to both: “My life is all grief, my years are but sighs” (Ps. 30:11)