Today, an example of people, with an evil intent, using “papal words” in an improper manner in order to subvert the Tradition. A theologian today who is desirous of the union of Lutherans and Catholics can mischievously misuse the following citation from Pope Benedict XVI in order to reject Catholic Dogma:
“And we cannot—to use the classical expression—’merit’ Heaven through our works. Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something “merited”, but always a gift. However, even when we are fully aware that Heaven far exceeds what we can merit, it will always be true that our behaviour is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history” (Spe salvi, art. 35).
The theologian maintains: Pope Benedict has authoritatively declared that “We cannot merit heaven through our works.” He points out that Luther agrees. He concludes: Therefore, we can once again be united in one faith.
But this is facile nonsense. The theologian is taking an isolated statement from Pope Benedict, which would have a low level of authority in itself considered as such, and pits it against Catholic Dogma, which cannot be subverted by anyone except under pain of heresy and automatic excommunication.
This theologian has gone astray, done a disservice to you and me, to Pope Benedict, and to the Lutherans.
When we want dogma on justification and merit, we go to Trent. Nothing that comes after Trent can water Trent down or minimize it, much less deny it! Let us read what Trent has to say:
“If anyone says that the good works of the justified man are the gifts of God in such a way that they are not also the good merits of the justified himself, or that the justified person himself—in the good works which are wrought by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ of whom he is a living member—does not truly merit an increase in grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he dies in grace) and even an increase in glory: let him be anathema” (Trent VI, canon 32).
This canon leaves absolutely no wiggle room. One can thus find Pope Benedict’s expression unfortunate. It was a poorly turned phrase because it appears to contradict Trent. So, if Pope Benedict actually intended the phrase to contradict Trent, he would have become a heretic and forfeited the papacy at that point. But that was not his intention. His statement should be read in a higher light, and his own words give us the hermeneutical key to do this.