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Best of 2021: The hollow meritocracy



A side issue in the revelations of the abusive treatment of women in Parliament has been the dichotomy made between quotas and merit. In the Liberal Party many members base their opposition to quotas in a core belief of the party that merit should govern all advancement in society.

Main image: Two people trying to climb ladders (Getty)

The debate about quotas based on gender has been well canvassed. The wider issues raised about merit and meritocracy, however, merit further reflection. Far in the background to both conversations lies a sophisticated body of reflection on merit among Christian theologians.

Theologians drew the metaphor of merit from legal and commercial transactions. It was defined as the quality of actions that as a matter of justice entitle one person to a reward from another. With money at stake and lawyers involved, distinctions between different kinds of actions and theories about the kinds of merit they possessed multiplied from antiquity on.

Christian theologians adapted the metaphor of merit to describe the relationship between God and human actions. They asked whether good actions entitled us to a reward from God. Augustine argued, and his position proved normative in the Western Church, that salvation was God’s gift (grace) and was mediated by Christ’s life and death. In the relationship between God and human beings there was no space for any merit based in human entitlement. The exclusion of merit raised a then led theologians to ask whether there was space left for human freedom and about what value obedience to God’s law, life within the church and moral striving had in Christian life. 

Western Catholic theologians argued that although human beings had no merit of their own, they received it by God’s promise, with the result that a good, prayerful life lived in the church could contribute to their salvation. Salvation was still by God’s gift, but that gift was mediated to involve human activity. This insight was reflected in the rich texture of medieval religious life with its sacraments, indulgences, penances and prayers. These, however, could easily be seen without reference to God’s gift, as machinery whose mastery could guarantee salvation.

Luther and the Protestant Reformers saw the transactional metaphor of merit and the tissue of practices that it engendered as a corruption of Christian faith. They sought to abolish them. They focused on the metaphor of gift within which salvation was entirely unearned. It was to be received with gratitude, not calculation. This gift would naturally find expression in a generous and prayerful life. Catholic reformers defended the value of human goodness and of church life in God’s eyes while insisting also that they were God’s gift.

Though both movements emphasised the necessity of grace and gift, however, both were also vulnerable to a sense of entitlement if gratitude should fade and the priority of grace became a belief and not part of a living faith. The Reformed emphasis on God’s choice of those who were to be saved could lead easily to a conviction of entitlement and of superiority over the reprobate who were not saved. Merit entered through the back door. Similarly, among Catholics adherence to the true Church and to its life could slide into the belief that their own beliefs and practices led to a salvation denied to those who were not Catholic.


'The conversation about the treatment of women in Parliament has revealed the hollowness of the appeal to merit. No person is self-made.'


The keystone of this theological history is the insistence that all human activity lies under the canopy of gift. The world of competitive human transactions involves merit, but is only part of a wider world of interlocking relationships that are characterised as gift. In all relationships people are responsible as persons to one another. The world, differences between human beings based on education social status, nobility of birth and intelligence, human activity in it, and achievement are all gift available for the shaping of a just world.

That view came under pressure with the separation of faith from public life and the emphasis on the individual rather than the communal. It then became easier to see one’s gifts and the skills that went into financial success as achievements, not gifts. In this world competitive success entitled people to reward. It demonstrated merit. Those who lost out in competition had no merit. They were the undeserving poor, the losers, whose misery and exclusion from society gilded the merits of the successful winners. The canopy over the world was economic competition with all its divisions and not gift with its bindings together. This is the world occupied by a number of members of the Liberal Party whose appeal to merit is accompanied by support for harsh and demeaning treatment of people who fail to compete.

The conversation about the treatment of women in Parliament has revealed the hollowness of the appeal to merit. No person is self-made. We all depend on the accidents of birth, gender, education, connections, privileged social groupings. The division of society into those with merit and those without and the ascription of competitive success to merit ignores the extent to which merit depend on these accidents and on people’s unawareness to their influence. In the case of gender that ignorance is now increasingly recognised as wilful.

The attachment to merit under the canopy of competitive individualism, however, extends beyond the selection of political candidates. It survives even the systematic attempts to remove the influence of the accidents of birth and connections on individual achievement. These attempts are embodied in the competitive tests between individuals which theoretically are equally open to all. By such tests and examinations from early childhood into working life those with greater merit are separated by those without. The result is seen in unequal and stratified and often segregated societies in which the winners are well satisfied with superior merit. They can ignore the inequalities of birth, health, race, linguistic skills, educational opportunity and familiarity with the techniques and background information that contribute to success in tests.

The response to these defects has generally been to refine the competitive tests and narrow their scope to what is economically useful so that unadulterated individual merit is rewarded. The history of merit, however, suggests that this only exacerbates the problem. What has been lost is the stripping away of the canopy of gift as central to all thinking of human activity and relationships and substituting for it economic competition. Meritocracy, born out of the dream of equality, ends in an unequal and mean dystopia. 

In the light of the failure of merit to perform over distance, it might be worth again looking the gift horse in the mouth, and indeed saddling it up for the big race of life. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Two people trying to climb ladders (Getty)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, merit, meritocracy, australian government, theology, Catholic, Protestant



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Existing comments

Thanks, Andy! Very helpful.
It can happen in the set prayers of the Catholic mass that we may not merit in the Collect, but merit in the Eucharistic Prayer. Nevertheless, the Catholic Catechism is against merit in at least 3 places. I have found the shift in language portrayed in SA's education system provides a liturgical challenge.
Not a century ago, SA had a Qualifying Certificate (QC!) at the end of "Grade 7", which was later replaced by a "Progress Certificate". Now the Governor gives out Merits only to the very top performers in Year 12 subjects. The merit involved in a QC had the sense of "not failing" in the basics.
So, now I replace the positive "merit"-ing in the liturgy with "that we may not fail to gain" or similar. Of course, the issues around grace will never afford us a perfect solution…

Paul Fyfe | 04 January 2022  

It seems that politicians and theologians have much in common - they both cause more trouble than good!!

john frawley | 09 January 2022  

Good on You, Andy!

The discussion around quotas rightly rejects a notion of merit based on unseen and unacknowledged privilege conferred by the deterministic accidents of biology, inheritance and birth.

Thus, contemporary broad theology and, for Catholics, sacramentology, necessarily and forcefully draws attention to the priesthood of all that is conferred through Baptism.

Inevitably this raises the question of women's ordination, objections to which are increasingly seen as irrelevant and attenuated to the notion of an ecclesiology that is out of touch with great strides in the development of moral theology. In sum, one side of our Church is out of touch with the other!

To apply such analysis to the posts of the first two of your respondents, then, is to reveal how some from lower socio-economic backgrounds were excluded from participating in a fairer construction of merit and what this now does, as opposed to what it used to do, in advancing the just claims of all to an equal place at the table.

In the former, South Australian education, as almost universally evident in the rest of the developed world, has become much more just as, additionally, have pressures on political systems to become more democratically inclusive.

Michael Furtado | 13 January 2022  

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