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The Internal Forum and Catholic Remarriage

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:

The Adulterous Woman Alone with Jesus by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

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 [1] 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 [2], 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.