Is ‘the Internal Forum’ a Gambit to Change Church Teaching?

The term internal forum as used here refers to the private judgment a person has regarding his own moral life. It involves the formation and consultation of his conscience and, as the pope indicates, may also involve the personal guidance of a spiritual director and/or a confessor. As such, it is a good and necessary part of one’s spiritual life.

Internal forum vs. internal forum solution

Many years ago there was a movement of sorts in the Church to allow reliance on the internal forum alone when determining whether or not one’s prior marriage was valid. If, in the internal forum, a person determined that his prior marriage was null, then he could consider his subsequent marriage valid. As such, his civil remarriage could be seen as not a sinful situation that precluded his participation in the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

This became known as the “internal forum solution.” The difficulty surrounding Pope Francis’s use of the term “internal forum” in his apostolic exhortation seems to be whether or not he intended to promote such an “internal forum solution.”

The bishops of Malta seem to think he did. This month they issued a document titled Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. In it, sometimes drawing from the text of Amoris Laetitia, they state:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it, a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist (10).

Such an approach seems to rely on the internal forum alone to determine whether or not a prior marriage was valid. Prior to making this bold statement, the bishops do say, “If during the discernment process with these people, a reasonable doubt arises concerning the validity or consummation of their canonical marriage, we should propose that these people make a request for a declaration of the nullity or dissolution of their marriage bond” (4).

A request for a declaration of the nullity or dissolution of a marriage bond entails the external forum, but the ordinary recourse to such a process is merely to be proposed, according to the bishops. In closing their document, the bishops pray “that through her priests, the Church in Malta and Gozo can indeed be a messenger that helps today’s Christians to be open to God’s voice in their conscience and, thereby, see the new path opening before them, leading from darkness to light.”

Clearly, the conscience is to reign supreme. Is this how Pope Francis intended the message of his apostolic exhortation to be applied? I don’t think so.

Evidence to the contrary

Pope Francis prefaces his comment about the internal forum by stating, “Neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” (AL 300). In other words, he does not intend to change the laws of the Church. And, as we will see, the Church has explicitly condemned recourse to the “internal forum solution” multiple times in recent decades.

Pope John Paul II took up this issue in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. He stated, “The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage” (84). In other words, the external forum is a necessary service of the Church in such situations; the internal forum is simply not sufficient.

Indeed, Pope John Paul II went on to indicate that even if a person does determine in the internal forum that his prior marriage was null, such a determination does not provide sufficient certainty for him to morally receive the Eucharist:

[T]here 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.

However, 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. (84)

Pope Benedict XVI addressed the internal forum solution even more explicitly when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1994 he issued the letter Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. In it he explained:

The mistaken conviction of a divorced-and-remarried person that he may receive Holy Communion normally presupposes that personal conscience is considered in the final analysis to be able, on the basis of one’s own convictions, to come to a decision about the existence or absence of a previous marriage and the value of the new union. However, such a position is inadmissible. Marriage, in fact, both because it is the image of the spousal relationship between Christ and his church as well as the fundamental core and an important factor in the life of civil society, is essentially a public reality (7).

It is certainly true that a judgment about one’s own dispositions for the reception of Holy Communion must be made by a properly formed moral conscience. But it is equally true that the consent that is the foundation of marriage is not simply a private decision since it creates a specifically ecclesial and social situation for the spouses, both individually and as a couple. Thus the judgment of conscience of one’s own marital situation does not regard only the immediate relationship between man and God, as if one could prescind from the church’s mediation that also includes canonical laws binding in conscience. Not to recognize this essential aspect would mean in fact to deny that marriage is a reality of the church, that is to say, a sacrament (8).

He went on to reference Familiaris Consortio and state that, concerning the determination of the nullity of a prior marriage, “It must be discerned with certainty by means of the external forum established by the church whether there is objectively such a nullity of marriage” (10).

Additionally, in 2005, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts issued Dignitas Connubii, an instructional document for marriage tribunals that hear annulment cases. At its presentation, Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the council, explained why the external forum is necessary for an annulment and said, “This instruction confirms the need to submit the question of the validity or nullity of a marriage of the faithful to a truly judicial trial.”

A hermeneutic of continuity

Given the clearly stated position of the Church on this issue, as well as Pope Francis’s own conviction that Amoris Laetitia is not intended to change the rules, it seems only fair to conclude that the internal forum solution remains condemned in the mind of the Church. Pope Francis does mention the internal forum because it is a necessary part of every Catholic’s spiritual formation, but he does not propose that it is sufficient of itself to provide a “solution” to the question of the validity or nullity of a prior marriage.