So, we are left with the task of coming to a right understanding of Pope Benedict’s meaning. What was he getting at?
He was teaching us that in order to merit, we depend upon God’s prior offer of grace and his ever offered, freely-given help to pilgrim man. Also, he was teaching us that God is more generous than our merits deserve. Also, he was teaching us that we should not understand merit in an impersonal or merely contractual sense. Because he, Pope Benedict XVI, took the term “merit” in this statement to mean “merely impersonal or contractual, self-interested claim on a payment,” he rejected it. And the term so understood should be rejected. I think Thérèse rejected it thus understood in her own way.
Sadly, however, this is not the real meaning of merit. To reject this caricature of merit is fine, but one should explicitly uphold the reality of merit truly understood. Hence, this citation is unfortunate. The Constant and Universal Tradition of Holy Mother Church employs the term merit with regard to our attainment of glory. And the Council of Trent dogmatically declared that we indeed merit. Now, if one is to maintain the language and understanding of the Church, one would have no problem in affirming merit. However, if one changes the meaning of the term, or fails to follow the language of the Church’s tradition as affirmed by the Church herself in her infallible decree on merit, one can easily invite confusion. It is a discipline for a pope to follow the traditional mode of expression. He submits to it and adheres to it.
Of course, one also wants to communicate to the public and to a contemporary audience which is not necessarily discipling the Church’s teaching. Thus, the recent mode of discourse in the Magisterium is to employ new terms and new approaches. However, we are all bound, the Pope as well as the lowly lay person receiving First Communion, to affirm all the dogmas the Church has ever proclaimed. I think that the key problem here is poor communication.
Poor communication: In wanting to reach out to a contemporary audience, especially one that is wider than Catholic, one uses terms differently than does the Tradition. That allows the pope to reach some who otherwise would not be reached. However, this can leave Catholics in the dark for a while, because he thereby fails to point out that this is not a denial of the Tradition. Were it a denial of the Tradition, he would be a heretic and lose the papal office. Since the Magisterium has been laboring to reach out to all men, it has not done as good a job at communicating in house to the actual members of the Church, Catholics. Then, in the interval between this charity and this lack, rebel theologians come in to plunder the very Tradition!
How should merit be understood? What would be a way to bring together the Tradition – which never errs – with the contemporary concerns? As follows, briefly. (I am not treating merit as such but only as an example of what perverse things someone can do with papal words.) We should see merit as the truth in the order of justice between friends who love each other. For, in inviting and equipping us, God is as the lover who awakens his beloved. God remaining faithful to this awakening invitation, it were unjust for him to reject his beloved after she embraces him in love! It were unjust for God to awaken love and then to leave it unconsoled. It were unjust for God to draw you to him only to leave you in the dark, though you embraced him and love him! Merit is the word that indicates the justice entailed in the invitation to love. Hence, merit and love are by no means antithetical.
Pope Benedict’s concerns about misinterpretations are all reasonable, crucial.
However, it remains unfortunate that the citation as such leaves the rebel theologians a “crumb” by which to mount an anti-dogmatic argument.
But against all these rebels, we must resolutely reject all “hermeneutic of discontinuity”.
I would like to formulate the rejection of the hermeneutic of rupture this way: “Anyone who takes any papal word or word of a pope in such a way as to embrace what is contrary to the Deposit of Faith is a heretic.”
Positively put: “There can be no justification to take any papal word or word of a pope as a reason to reject any element of the Deposit of Faith.”