CHAPTER XV. THE CAPACITY OF THE SOUL TO MERIT OR DEMERIT. PART 1.
It is needless to observe that demerit is the opposite of merit. An act comes under the denomination of demerit, when it is deserving of punishment.
After these preliminary observations on the nature of merit and demerit, let us see what are the feelings of Catholics as to the capacity of the souls in Purgatory for merit or demerit. Before doing so, how ever, it may be observed that as long as Luther admitted the existence of Purgatory, he held that the souls suffering in it were capable of merit and demerit. Among the false propositions of his, which Leo X. proscribed in 1520, are the following :— " The souls in Purgatory, at least all, are not certain of their salvation; nor is it proved either by any reasons or Scriptures, that they are beyond the state of meriting, or increasing charity." " The souls in Purgatory sin without intermission, as long as they seek rest and dread punishment." Such were the notions which Luther harboured on our present subject. Far different is the opinion of Catholics, which the following proposition embraces :— The souls in Purgatory can neither merit nor demerit.
This proposition is proved from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Fathers.
I. It is proved from the Old Testament. In the book of Wisdom (iv. II.) it is written of the just man: "He was taken away lest wickedness should alter his understanding, or deceit beguile his soul." Thus, the just man was taken out of this world, in order that his understanding or intellect may not be changed by wickedness, nor his soul beguiled by deceit. It was to prevent him from being changed, or influenced, by wickedness or deceit, it was to prevent him from committing sin, that he was taken out of this life. Therefore, we infer, a person cannot commit sin after the present life or in Purgatory. If one could commit sin in Purgatory, as in this life, it would be vain to say that the just man " was taken away lest wickedness should alter his understanding, or deceit beguile his soul." The Psalmist tells us that the just man falls seven times a day. It would be no advantage to this just man to be translated earlier to the other life, if he were liable to fall in Purgatory, as he does here. Hence, the verse in the Book of Wisdom shows that the just cannot commit sin in Purgatory; and so proves, at least, the second part of the proposition, which asserts that the souls in Purgatory are incapable of demerit.
It is also written in the Book of Ecclesiastes : (ix. 5.) " The dead know nothing more, neither have they a reward any more." The dead have no power to acquire any good, any supernatural reward, as the living have by means of grace. After death, the just cannot increase the glory they possess, or that, as in the case of those in Purgatory, is in store for them. They for whom there is no reward, are in capable of merit.
A few verses (v. x.) farther on, Ecclesiastes again writes : " Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly : for neither work, nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge, shall be in hell, whither thou art hastening." Whilst a man is in this life, he can do good and merit an eternal reward; but after death, he can no longer merit, because he cannot then perform a good work to which is due an eternal reward. He who can be assisted before God, neither by his wisdom, nor any good work, is not capable of merit or demerit. For this reason St. Jerome, explaining the same verse of Ecclesiastes, says : "Whilst men live, they can become just; but after death there is given no occasion of a good work" A little later on, he uses even stronger and clearer language, which proves at the same time both members of our proposition, when he says : " For neither can they (the souls in the other world) act justly, nor sin.- neither renounce virtues, nor vices.
We find another argument in proof of the Catholic teaching, in the same Ecclesiastes, (xi. 3.) where it is said: " If the tree fall to the south, or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be." A person's eternal doom is sealed at death. The tree shall ever remain where it falls. Wheresoever a person shall fall at death, there shall he remain for eternity. He can neither rise higher, nor fall lower. Therefore merit, and demerit are no longer in his power.
In the Book of Ecclesiasticus (xiv. 17.) the following advice is given us: "Before thy death work justice: for in hell there is no finding food." After death, or in hell, under which term is included Purgatory, there is no more food for the soul—there is no more nourishment for it. In equivalent and plainer words, the soul can no longer acquire merit.
In the same Ecclesiasticus (xviii. 22.) we are likewise advised : "Be not afraid to be justified even to death.'' This is equivalent to saying, that we should do our utmost to be justified before death. Why is this ? Because after we cross the threshold of eternity, we can obtain no justification ; and merit, any more than demerit, is not then in our power.