This paper answers the following question: Given what Catholics believe about grace, merit and justification, why is it much more logical for Catholics to have treatises on progress in the practice of the presence of God and growth in mystical prayer than Protestants?
To answer this question, we must first contrast the two positions on grace, merit, and justification. We begin by asking the question, “Does grace involve a true change in our inner nature?”
In opposition to the Catholic doctrine of grace, Martin Luther advanced the heresy of “forensic justification,” by which the justice of Christ is “imputed” to the believer, who, despite this, remains interiorly disordered. The rebel friar explained this in his typically scatological verbiage: “Luther held that man in the state of grace was like a lump of dung covered by snow. He maintained that man was justified only exteriorly speaking.” Man in grace is like a criminal guilty of a capital crime whom the judge finds innocent by simply ignoring his guilt. God looks at man justified in this way, sees the merits of Christ in which this Christian is “cloaked,” and simply disregards the fact that he is still interiorly corrupt.
In brief, then, the “classical” Protestant answer to the question asked above is No: There is no change of our inner nature. Without this change, this new (accidental) form or quality added to our soul by which we are rendered truly pleasing to God, we can do no works which please Him. Therefore, we cannot grow in grace, which Luther held to be radically equal in all believers. Progress in the spiritual life and merit are impossible in the Lutheran system: “In Luther’s thought, because everybody was still just a sinner, there were no degrees of holiness, because God merely overlooked the fact that we were garbage. There was no mystical life of prayer; everybody was equally the same.”
Against this Protestant heresy, the Council of Trent defined that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” Therefore, the Catholic Church answers Yes: there is a true change in our inner nature.
This change can be explained in terms of the three distinct meanings of the word “grace” which St. Thomas explains in the Summa: “First, for anyone’s love, as we are accustomed to say that the soldier is in the good graces of the king, i.e. the king looks on him with favor. Secondly, it is taken for any gift freely bestowed, as we are accustomed to say: I do you this act of grace. Thirdly, it is taken for the recompense of a gift given ‘gratis,’ inasmuch as we are said to be ‘grateful’ for benefits. Of these three the second depends on the first, since one bestows something on another ‘gratis’ from the love wherewith he receives him into his good ‘graces.’ And from the second proceeds the third, since from benefits bestowed ‘gratis’ arises ‘gratitude.’ “
He goes on to explain that each successive sense of the word depends on those which precede it. Then he contrasts human love with divine love. (This is important to the subject at hand since “The Catholic Church… looks upon grace as the fruit of love.”) St. Thomas notes that, whereas human love finds something pleasing (“graceful”) in the beloved and responds to it, divine love effects grace in the beloved by making it lovable. This is because the soul in original sin has nothing in it which could please God and no native power to change this. In other words, God’s love causes the “renewal of the interior man” defined by the Council of Trent. This corresponds to the first of the three senses of “grace.”
Far exceeding the love by which God loves all creation, this “special” love for man, “draws the rational creature above the condition of its nature to a participation of the Divine good; and according to this love He is said to love anyone simply, since it is by this love that God simply wishes the eternal good, which is Himself, for the creature.”
Considerably beyond the dignity of snow-covered dung, the justified believer is made “a new creature” by sanctifying grace, which is nothing less than “an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.” Raised into this sphere of being pleasing to God, the soul receives further gifts “gratis” from Him (the second sense of “grace”).
Being now able to “act by his love,” the Christian may perform works worthy of a reward. Thus, sanctifying grace causes us to merit. This is the third sense of “grace”: “the recompense of a gift given,” whereby we “give” something to God. While we cannot strictly merit grace; with grace, we can merit an increase of sanctifying grace in this life and of glory in heaven.
St. Thomas’ division of grace into “operating grace” (sanctifying grace) and “cooperating grace” (merit) helps to illustrate the connection that exists between grace and merit. Perhaps this nomenclature would spare some of our separated brethren the pharisaical scandal they take in the Catholic notion of merit. The Catholic doctrine is quite biblical, as many parables, with St. Matthew’s last judgment scene, show eternal rewards bestowed on men based on our grace-aided efforts. By operating grace, it is God alone acting in us to effect a change. By cooperating grace, both God and we act, as it were, by a partnership. This distinction clarifies St. Augustine’s beautiful thoughts on the subject: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?”
Since grace is a “fruit of love” and empowers us “to act by his love” some comments on the relationship between the state of grace and theological charity are in order. St. Thomas remarks that (sanctifying) grace is the principal of merit through charity. This is so because sanctifying grace is an entitative habit, one that establishes us in a certain manner of being and gives us a “new nature”; whereas charity is an operative habit, one that gives us the power to act according to that nature. Very precisely, then, does the Catechism say that sanctifying grace “perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.” Being the queen of all the virtues, charity moves each of them to their proper acts. Without charity, in fact, the other virtues would be profitless.
Further, along with sanctifying grace itself, charity admits of increase, according to the text of St. Augustine cited by St. Thomas: “charity merits increase, and being increased merits to be perfected.” In this same article of the Summa, St. Thomas speaks of the increase of grace as commensurate with the increase of theological charity – both being the proper results of merit.
The notion of spiritual progress, then, is nothing more than the perfecting of charity in us, the loving response of the justified Catholic to the “universal call” to holiness: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”
Besides “cooperating grace,” we also grow in loving union with the Blessed Trinity through the medium of Christ’s flesh which “touches us” in the sacraments, especially (and literally) in the Eucharist: “Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called ‘mystical’ because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments – ‘the holy mysteries’ – and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
“The practice of the presence of God and growth in mystical prayer” fit into this Catholic economy of grace and spiritual progress, an economy radically different than that of “Good Martin Luther.” They are acts of interior virtue (especially charity) with sanctifying grace as their principle, carried out by the motion of actual grace and the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and meriting an increase of grace and charity in via, as well as glory in patria. It is right and fitting that we Catholics read and write treatises on them.
 “The term ‘merit’ refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.” CCC 2006. I mention the “scandal” Protestants take because they generally caricature the Catholic position into some sort of Pelagianism whereby our own unaided works strictly merit us rewards from God. They then take scandal at this straw man.