How do Catholics reconcile the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with what it says in Romans 3:23 about all having sinned and falling short of the glory of God?

Romans 3:23 NIV

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God


3 Answers 3


In essence, the Catholic Church takes the position that Paul is not intending to attribute actual sin to every human being that has ever existed.

For the benefit of readers not familiar with the Catholic doctrine on sin, the Church distinguishes between actual sin (sometimes also called personal sin), which consists in concrete actions in which a person knowingly and deliberately contravenes God’s law, and original sin, which is not “sin” in the strict sense, but the privation of grace that all people (save the singular cases discussed below) suffer before their Baptism. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 405 and 1849.)

The broader context of 3:23 is as follows:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Rom. 3:21-23, ESV).

Although it is possible that Paul is referring to passages of the Old Testament (such as Ecclesiastes 7:20, as Marc points out), it is also clear that St. Paul is making the message his own. Nevertheless, in the context of Chapter 3, St. Paul is essentially refuting the idea that the People of Israel have a special advantage with respect to the Gentiles. It is true, argues Paul, that the Jews have the tremendous advantage of the Law and the Prophets, but it has not prevented them from sinning. Rather, he says, “all”—that is, both Jews and Gentiles—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

It follows that Paul’s use of the qualifier “all” should not be taken to mean “every man, woman, or child that has ever existed,” but rather all human beings in general, and in particular, all human beings including the people of Israel.

Moreover, even just a simple logical analysis of St. Paul’s expression reveals that it cannot be ascribing actual sin to every human being. Clearly, Jesus Christ himself—who is fully man—did not commit any actual sins, and indeed was conceived free of original sin as well. (The union of his human nature to his Divine Nature according to his divine Person makes any kind of sin impossible in him.)

Even among mere creatures, there are many human beings who die without ever committing an actual sin: for example, those who die as young children, and those who have severe mental handicaps.

For all these reasons, it follows that when Paul asserts that “all have sinned” (πάντες γὰρ ἥμαρτον), the “all” (πάντες) is not meant to be applied exhaustively. There is, therefore, no reason that an individual human being could not receive a special grace that preserves him (or her) from original sin and its effects.

(Note that the Church holds that Mary, when she was alive on earth, was always capable of sinning—unlike Jesus Christ—but that she never actually did. Thanks to her preservation from original sin, she enjoyed the ability to avoid committing any actual sins—a possibility that the vast majority of us do not have. See CCC 490-493.)

  • @MattGutting Good point. I settled for “human being,” since “people” could also be confused with “people” in the sense of “people of Israel.” Nov 3, 2015 at 6:30

The Catholic churches doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood. I'm going to quote from my own book, "Roaming Catholics: ending the wandering to embrace the wonder" Xpyria Press 2015

This Catholic doctrine embraces the teaching that from the moment of her conception, the Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin. As God picked the Virgin Mary to be the mother of the Christ child, she was preserved from the stain (Latin: macula) of original sin.

This teaching does not refer to Jesus' conception, which, according to scripture and accepted by all Christians , was through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nor does this teaching indicate that Mary remained sinless.

Often, Catholics defend the Virgin Mary as the sinless one when the dogma and teaching refer only to original sin, not all sin.

In this way, Romans 3:23 that "all have sinned" would also refer to Mary.

  • Not precisely true, as I understand it; though it's not formally declared on its own as dogma, it's stated several times in Catholic teaching, including in Ineffabilis Deus, that Mary was also free of actual (personal) sin. Aquinas defends the position as well, in the Summa Theologica. Nov 5, 2015 at 2:15
  • Appreciate your comment. Catholic teaching is actually very broad but many of the popular teachings have become dogma. Included would be much of Mariology, Limbo and Escathology Nov 5, 2015 at 2:46
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    That actually was to be "not dogma". Nov 5, 2015 at 2:47
  • I see what you're saying; but even the Catechism, the Church's fundamental teaching document, says: "From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. ... she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life." (paragraph 508, emphasis added) How do you reconcile that with your statement that the teaching on Mary's sinlessness does not refer to all sin? Nov 5, 2015 at 3:39
  • @MattGutting That is correct, the Church teaches that Mary was free also of personal sin. Historically, Mary’s freedom from personal sin was not controversial until the Reformation—for instance, it was affirmed by both the Eastern and the Western Fathers. The Medieval theological debates were over whether Mary was preserved from original sin from the moment of conception or not. We can regard Mary’s freedom from personal sin as definitive tenendum —as something firmly to be held. Nov 17, 2015 at 7:47

Often when Paul spoke, being a the greatest student of the Greatest Rabi, Paul would pull from old testiment scriptures. Here he was pulling from Salamon and also the Psalms of David.

Ecclesiastes 7:20 Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.

Psalm 14:3 Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

Psalm 53:2 God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back:they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

The wording is almost exact, Paul knew these passages, he sang these songs, this is the great learning that was spoken of him. When Saint Paul said these things he surely knew and understood that he was speaking from the prophets, repeating them and thier teachings.

Now, if we take Romans 3:23 literally we run into many obsticles the first and formost is Christ himself who is 100% man. If Paul meant "ALL" as a Protestant would suggest that he did and infact use as a basis for Our Holy Mother having sinned, then they would have to include Christ as being one of the "ALL" that Paul was speaking of. If the Protestants acknowlege that there are exceptions, and the Catholic Church agrees that Christ was sinless, the why would they limit those exceptions to only Christ when the bible itself does not use "ALL" in that way.

We have to assume that Paul was quotiung from scripture, scripture that existed before the Incarnation. His words are distributive not inclusive. All have sinned, Not withstanding the exceptions, Christ and His mother. Also, Paul is talking about active sin, not inherited sin. So, also excluded from Romans 3:23 is every child under the age of reason, every person mentaly ill, the unborn.

Here are some other instances in the bible where comments cannot be taken as suggested by the Protestant understanding of Romans 3:23

John 12:19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.

Did the entire world go after him? I think not, the language and culture use Linguistic Hyperbole. Linguistic Hyperbole exist even today in semetic cultures making it very difficult for westerners to communicate with Islamic Cultures.

Matthew 3:5-6 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

Did ALL of Judea get baptized by John, did all Jerusalem including the High Priest? Surely Matthew, guided by his languistic custom, used the word all here to mean a Great Many. Did the Pharisees go too ?It wold also be a very big task for John to Baptize so many, his fingers would surely get Pruined.

Romans 15:13-14 Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.

Were the Romans filled with all Knowledge? Only God has all knowledge, surely, here in the same book written to Romans the word "all" is not used in way that signifies everyone but instead is limited and exludes some knowledge.

1 Corinthians 15:24 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

The Bible tells us that Enoch and Elijah did not die, Wouldn't that be an exception to the "all"used here 1 Corinthians? Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:11. Also see Hebrews 11:5 “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him.”

additionally not “all” choose to follow God. Some chose death and eternal damnation.

To Summarize, All christian who use "all" in Romans 3:23 and use it in a way that suggests "all" includes Christ or his Blessed Mother, his Mother who fully Graced prior to the enunciation, or who believe that the Unborn, or those who are not capable of choosing thier actions fit under the "all" used in this scripture, Well, Those Christians regarless of thier god intent, are ALL wrong. The bible says so.

I need not look for official Catholic teaching as it is clear in the scriptures.

  • @Pam I am sure that it may sound like babble to you, because you must believe Mary to be a sinner or else your house of cards fall. This is the Catholic Position, showing that Paul understood scripture differently then Protestants do. Living in the 1st century he used linguistic Hyperbole which you should look up. The fundamentalist view on Scripture is blinded. If you do not see the relationship between what Paul says in Rom 3:23 and what was said in Eccl 7:20 then it is because you choose not to.
    – Marc
    Nov 2, 2015 at 20:07
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    @Marc, although your essential argument is correct, I had to downvote the answer for two reasons: (1) it is generally a good idea to give sources, and (2) also not a good idea to add phrases that sound polemical (e.g, the last paragraph). We are, after all, trying to answer someone’s genuine interest in the Catholic Church’s teaching here. If those are fixed, I can remove the downvote. Nov 2, 2015 at 20:27
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    @Marc: To make this an answer to the question, you would have to refer to Catholic teachings or identifiable Catholic tradition on the Immaculate Conception. You would have to show how those teachings or traditions are defended against criticism on the basis of Romans 3:23. At the moment, this looks like a personal opinion - even though you may be a Catholic yourself. Nov 2, 2015 at 20:31

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