On Laying Up Treasure in Heaven

January 2002By Brendan Kneale

Brother Brendan Kneale, FSC, is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga.

In her traditional liturgy, and in her formal teaching as well, the Church makes mention of “merit.” In essence, this doctrine tells us that God rewards people to whom He gives the grace of doing good works. Christ’s merits are the paradigmatic examples. His works were supremely meritorious, and the classic teaching is that our works are too. We base our expectation of rewards on God’s gratuitously allowing our participation in the divine nature and on the promises we find in Scripture. Are there good reasons for the neglect of this consoling and commonsense doctrine in our Catholic press and pulpits?

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as writing, “I do not want to lay up merits for heaven….” But Jesus, in the Gospel, is quoted saying, “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” At first sight there appears to be a conflict here. And, as is usual in such situations, it is instructive to examine what is going on. In this case we learn something of value for our spiritual growth and about Catholic doctrine.

The 20 or so sentences in the Catechism, it seems to me, do not do justice to the topic, which traditionally has been of great importance. Its brevity nearly amounts to neglect and seems to reflect the unpopularity of merit as a subject of homilies in our churches.

We of course want people to lead good Christian lives, to grow in holiness. Treasures in Heaven are the promised result. Is it important to emphasize these “treasures”? In our own life, is growth in holiness helped by attention to them? One answer is to compare the official teaching on merit with the official teaching on Hell. Some people get into Heaven by backing away from Hell. Similarly, but more positively, some people may get to Heaven out of an appetite for merit (and for indulgences too, perhaps!).

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