The Internal Forum and Catholic Remarriage

A Message to TCT readers in the Washington, D.C. area: Aid to the Church in Need USA invites you to an evening of prayer and conversation with Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria, on Friday April 29, 2016. Bishop Kukah is visiting the U.S. to raise awareness of the plight of Nigeria’s faithful, who live under constant threat from Boko Haram. When: Friday April 29, 2016 at 6:00 PM. Where: Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land (1400 Quincy St., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017). You may register online by clicking here or by calling ACNUSA’s Mr. Joop Koopman at (917) 608-1989.

It is clear that at least some European bishops, and perhaps many bishops even in our own country, consider the use of the “internal forum” to “reconcile” remarried Catholics an accepted practice. So why the continued soul-searching? Could we be dealing with a fait accompli? A little history may help.

The distinction between the “external forum” (e.g. ecclesiastical courts) and the “internal forum” (e.g. the confessional as a tribunal of conscience) has been discussed for centuries in Canon Law and theology. But for the last forty-seven years, various vicissitudes in interpretation have emerged, fomenting current disagreements about so-called “Catholic remarriage.”

The following timeline may illustrate how we arrived at the present scenario:

  • 1969: Fr. Joseph Ratzinger publishes an article in a theological journal discussing the possibility that “in the community of the early Church as represented by Matt. 5 and Matt. 19, there was a practice of divorce and remarriage after a case of adultery.”

  • 1972: Ratzinger in an article, “On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage,” retracts his earlier statement about the early Church, because “in view of the complete unanimity of the tradition of the first four centuries to the opposite effect this position is wholly improbable.” But he still held that in certain limited cases, there is the possibility “in a non-judicial way, based on the testimony of the pastor and church members, for the admission to Communion of those who live in such a second marriage.” He cites the fallibility of annulment procedures and possible new moral obligations after remarriage as possible justifications.

  • 1973: Croatian Cardinal Franjo Šeper cites “the approved practice in the internal forum” of allowing Catholics in a second invalid marriage to return to the sacraments after repentance.

  • 1975: Archbishop Jean Jérôme Hamer, Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stipulated that the internal forum could allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments if “they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles.”

  • 1981: That “stipulation,” however, although formerly approved by the CDF, was restricted by Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio: “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

The Adulterous Woman Alone with Jesus by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
The Adulterous Woman Alone with Jesus by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
  • 1991: Cardinal Ratzinger in a letter published in The Tablet, clarifies Cardinal Seper’s 1973 reference to “approved practice,” emphasizing that this use of the internal-forum solution would require a “pledge to abstain from sexual relations.”

  • 2005: The 2005 Synod on the Eucharist reaffirmed the 1981 decision of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio.

  • 2007: Pope Benedict XVI in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis reiterates the decision of the 2005 Synod.

  • 2015: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, in his book, The Vocation and Mission of the Family: The Essential Documents of the Synod of Bishops, offers an example of the still proper use of the internal forum: “If a woman, for example, has had a broken marriage and an abortion, but later ‘remarried’ civilly and has now five children and desires to receive absolution for her former abortion. . . . you [priests] cannot let this woman go away without having freed her from the burden of her sin.”

  • 2016: Pope Francis chooses Cardinal Schönborn to present his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which advises priests to accompany those in “irregular marital situations,” avoid making the confessional a “torture chamber,” and avoid treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect.” 

Some therefore wonder, is this Schönborn redivivus?

Under Canon Law, there are still legitimate uses of the internal forum in absolving divorced and remarried Catholics. If the “external forum” of ecclesiastical tribunals cannot be used because of lack of witnesses, lack of evidence, or unavailability, the internal forum would be the place of last resort. Also, in cases of impending death, last rites and absolution can be given to a penitent.

But the thought that comes to me regarding contemporary care of remarried Catholics is what about the victims from the former marriage? In cases that I am familiar with, the “remarriage” involved abandonment of housewives with numerous children. How are they to cope? Alimony? How will the children fare after the father leaves?

There is a contemporary problem of the “widows and orphans” being created by current practices like no-fault divorce, and the predicament of Catholic women who are still bound sacramentally to the man who leaves. Just go out and look for another breadwinner? Add one more plaintiff to the Catholic “divorced and remarried” contingent?

Bai Macfarlane runs an organization called Mary’s Advocates, which is dedicated “to strengthen marriage, to eliminate forced no-fault divorce, and to support those who have been unjustly abandoned by their spouse.” One of their present projects is to present downloadable petitions to bishops to intervene to help prevent break-ups and help the potential abandoner to “remember his or her marital promises, and remember the original heartfelt desire to be a dedicated spouse.”

Certainly such timely preemptive interventions are as important as even the legitimate uses of the “internal forum.” In the Year of Mercy, it would be good to recognize that not only bishops, but the Church as a whole, should give spiritual, financial, and social support to unjustifiably abandoned spouses.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.