Many non-Catholics reject the idea that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was herself conceived without sin and remained sinless throughout her entire lifetime by a special privilege granted to her by God known as the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In support of their position, they frequently cite verses such as Romans 3:23 which states, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” in support of their arguments against the Catholic doctrine.
Noting the examples of children who die before the age of reason and of mentally handicapped individuals who may not be culpable for their actions, Catholics rightly respond that Paul would have acknowledged that the word “all” in Romans 3:23 does not rule out the possibility of exceptions to the rule that “all have sinned” by their personal actions.
But is this merely a word game played by enthusiastic partisans? Or is there any scriptural support for the principle behind the Immaculate Conception of Mary? For Catholics, the happy answer is “yes”, and the verse is the following:
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever.
In this passage, Jude is speaking to believers who have almost certainly committed personal sins during the course of their lifetimes whether before or after they became Christians. Yet, despite those imperfections, Jude insists that God is able to prevent someone from falling (sinning) again in the future in order that he or she might appear spotless before the throne of God. What an amazing idea: God can prevent someone from sinning! This is what Catholics have been saying all along concerning Mary.
So, how might this principle of preventive salvation apply to Mary? In the 13th century, Duns Scotus, the famous Franciscan theologian, explained that falling into sin could be likened to a man unknowingly approaching a deep ditch. If he falls into the ditch, he needs someone to lower a rope and save him. But if someone were to warn him of the danger ahead, preventing the man from falling into the ditch at all, he would be saved from falling in the first place.
Likewise, Mary was saved by God who protected her from inheriting the stain of original sin from Adam and prevented her from sinning during the course of her lifetime…just as scripture tells us He is able to do.
Does this suggest that Mary did not have free will? Not at all. Any one of us may ask God to protect us from the attacks of the evil one and from temptation; we ask for these things every time we pray the Our Father. Our struggles occur when we waiver in our commitment to avoid actual sins. However, by virtue of the fact that Mary was born free from the natural attraction to sin that plagues the rest of us, she was able to ask for God’s protection and remain committed to a sin-free life.