The Internal Forum


 Theodore Davey

In 1973 the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Seper, issued a statement which was highly critical, to say the least, of ‘new opinions which either deny or attempt to call into doubt the teaching of the magisterium of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage’. It is not my recollection of the 1970s that the venerable tradition of the Church with regard to the permanence of marriage was under serious attack from any quarter, be it from the magisterium of the bishops or that of the theologians. What was happening, however, was the emergence of a pastoral problem of considerable magnitude, martial breakdown, affecting unbelievers and believers alike throughout the Western World.

The interesting thing about Cardinal Seper’s letter, though, was the final paragraph, which addressed the pastoral problem of divorced and remarried Catholics:

In regards to admission to the Sacraments, the Ordinaries [bishops] are asked on the one hand to stress observance of the current discipline and, on the other hand, to take care that the pastors of souls exercise special care to seek out those who are living in an irregular union by applying to the solution of such cases, in addition to other right means, the Church’s approved practice in the internal forum.

This final remark about an approved practice in the internal forum was somewhat perplexing, since few bishops at that time seem to have realised such a practice existed. What was clear, however, was that the use of the internal forum was to enable people who were divorced and remarried to receive the sacraments – primarily Reconciliation and the Eucharist – again. It was not concerned, nor could it be, with any formal or canonical recognition of the second marriage.

On behalf of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Bernardin of Cincinnati wrote to Rome in December 1974, asking what the approved practice was. The secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Hamer, replied three months later in the following terms:

I would like to state now that this phrase must be understood in the context of traditional moral theology. These couples may be allowed to receive the sacraments on two conditions, that they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles and that they receive the sacraments in churches in which they are not known so that they will not create any scandal.

This was a very reasonable reply to a complex and fast growing problem, bringing in, so it seems to me, the ministry of the confessor as a valuable source of practical theology, and at the same time pointing out the very real risk of scandal in its theological sense: that the People of God might be led to conclude that the Church was weakening in its commitment to the evangelical teaching with regards to the permanence of marriage.

That exchange of correspondence took place over fifteen years ago, and while the rate of marital breakdown, from which Christians are not exempt, has continued unabated, another factor has intervened to make the problem even more acute. This springs from the overwhelming success of a pastoral initiative begun slowly in the years following the Second Vatican Council and known by the ugly acronym RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a process of gradual reception into the Church over a period of many months, which has now become mandatory in every parish.

More and more people of the people who are seeking admission into the Church come from a society where divorce and remarriage are the acceptable norm. They are often totally unaware of divorce and remarriage as possible obstacles to full Eucharistic communion with the Church, and, as many priests and catechists will confirm, very often it has been the trauma of divorce and a successful second marriage that has brought them to seek admission. So, faced with the dilemma of either receiving people into the Church, and immediately forbidding them the Eucharist, or refusing to allow them to enter the Church at all, many priests have expressed renewed interest in the possibility of dealing with this serious pastoral problem by means of ‘the Church’s approved practice in the internal forum’.

When we use the word ‘forum’ in reference to the Church, we are alluding to the ambit within which the Church exercises her saving, and in this context, her healing ministry. And we are considering the individual approaching God in the privacy and depth of conscience, or that same individual relating to God publicly as a member of the Church.

The exercise of that ministry, as it has evolved down the centuries, has taken either of two forms, public (or external), private (or internal). When a bishop administers his diocese by ordaining priests and appointing them to parishes, he is acting, as the canonists say, in the external forum. Two believers marrying in the presence of the priest and the community make a statement in the external forum. When however, a person makes manifestation of conscience – known to God alone – and receives absolution and healing from the confessor, then it is obvious that the ‘power of the keys’ is being used privately – in the internal forum. When a mother vows to God to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in thanksgiving for the recovery of her sick child she is acting in the internal forum – as is a parishioner consulting the parish priest privately about a marriage problem.

The distinction, however, does not imply that only the internal forum has effects on conscience. In the case of a man and women committing themselves to each other for life before the Church they are surely bound in conscience, and not just subject to the legal requirements of the canon law.

Ministry in the internal forum is exercised directly and immediately in favour of individual persons, or, as the final canon (1752) of the 1983 code puts it, ‘having before one’s eyes the salvation of souls, which is always the supreme law of the Church’. Ministry in the external forum is exercised directly and immediately for the good of the Christian community as a whole; it is the ambit of the common good. But another factor emerges, namely the need to keep the two forums distinct, in the sense that what is said and done in the internal forum will not be recognised in the external forum. That is not to say that the magisterium necessarily disapproves of the course of action a priest takes in the internal forum, but simply that a bishop may not think such a course of action suitable or pastorally beneficial to be given public approval in the external forum.

As regards the Church’s ‘approved practice’, two distinct situations present themselves. First, that of the person who, although he has gone through an apparently valid wedding ceremony, is convinced that factually it never was a marriage in any human or Christian sense of that term. Pope John Paul II refers to this in his Exhortation on the Christian Family (1981):

There are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

But that person may not be able to go to a marriage tribunal for a variety of reasons. For example, he has not witnesses to the fact, which the external forum rightly insists upon; or he is unwilling to involve his former spouse for what he considers serious reasons; or it is morally impossible for him to begin what he considers a most formidable undertaking; or the marriage tribunal is inoperative in his diocese. For any or several of these perfectly sound reasons, seeking a declaration of nullity in the external otr public ambit of the Church is not open to him.

The second situation commonly experienced today is that of the person who, unlike the first, is convinced of the validity of the previous marriage, and could not in conscience state it was otherwise. Again the Pope’s comment is apposite:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obligated to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage.

In either of these cases the confessor, or preferably the parish priest, is consulted privately about the possibility of the parishioner receiving the sacraments. To help such a decision, an evolving pastoral practice has elaborated several guidelines in this matter:

  • there is no possibility of reconciliation between the spouses since the first marriage has irreparably broken down;
  • acknowledgement of any responsibility for the failure of the first union, and where necessary reparation is made;
  • the second marriage has been in existence for some time, morally speaking it is impossible to separate because of new obligations arising from the second union, and the partners to it are genuinely doing their best to live an authentic Christian life;
  • such Eucharistic sharing should in no way be seen as a questioning of the teaching on indissolubility, and by preaching and teaching, such a practice must be regarded as entirely exceptional.

I mentioned above that the parish priest should be consulted, not only because of his general responsibility for the spiritual and sacramental life of his parish, but also because he will be better placed to make judgements about scandal were some divorced and remarried parishioners admitted to the Eucharist. In a curious reverse way it often happens that scandal does arise in a parish where the remarried are forbidden the Eucharist.

It should be noted that among the pastoral theologians who have helped to formulate these norms by their writing, the most distinguished is the present prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger.

(Theodore Davey, ‘The Internal Forum’,

The Tablet, 27 July 1991, pp. 905-906)

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