“Internal Forum”: How Kasper May Achieve His Goal

The admission of divorced and “remarried” Catholics to the Eucharist was one of the neuralgic issues at the recently concluded Synod on the Family. The German Episcopal Conference in general and Cardinal Walter Kasper in particular had been agitating for change in ecclesiastical discipline to allow some divorced and “remarried” Catholics to Holy Communion, with proposals ranging from some form of adaptation of the Eastern Orthodox epikeia strategy to penitential practices. In the end, the agreed upon tactic on their part seems to be an “internal forum” solution; the synod’s final document is sufficiently ambiguous and silent to leave the door open to such a practice.

Recourse to “internal forum” solutions is nothing new: the German hierarchy had been pushing for something similar almost a quarter century ago, when then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, killed it.

“Internal forum” solutions might typically operate on the model that a penitent lays out his situation to his confessor and the two “discern” whether in fact the person is truly repentant of his wrongdoing, is trying to make amends for it, seeks forgiveness, and sincerely believes that what he is doing in his current situation in life is morally upright and correct, even if it cannot be established in the external forum (i.e., in front of everybody). Recourse to internal forum solutions might have made sense, for example, in cases where a person is convinced that his “marriage” is invalid but for circumstances beyond his control (death or inaccessibility of witnesses, extended lapse of time, etc.) cannot prove that fact in the usual fashion.

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But how might an “internal forum” solution apply to the usual situation of a divorced and “remarried” Catholic? The answer is, in my judgment, it can’t.

If internal forum solutions typically apply to the ability to establish facts in relation to one’s circumstances (e.g., is my marriage indeed valid?) then there is a way of dealing with that: the annulment process. The purpose of diocesan marital tribunals is to determine whether, in fact, a Christian marriage truly took place.

Why should Catholics have recourse to a tribunal to decide this? One reason is the old axiom, nemo est judex in causa sua, “nobody is the judge of his own case.” The individual parties in a marriage are interested parties. Indeed, because marriage is always a sacrament involving two persons, it is quite possible that each individual party has a divergent interest in the outcome.

Beyond the question of personal partiality, however, there are other issues at stake here. What is at issue is a sacrament. Sacraments are an act of God, who has promised in his fidelity to stand by the sacramental word. Sacraments are also acts in the Church, which means they occurred in the community and in a publicly visible way. Since the Council of Trent, for example, clandestine marriages are invalid marriages: a Catholic cannot ordinarily marry except before a priest and two witnesses.

The Church therefore presumes that what looked like a sacrament and sounded like a sacrament IS a sacrament, because God does what he promises to do in the sacraments (ex opera operato). Fidelity to God and his sacramental order requires that decisions about marriage cannot be privatized. Likewise, because sacraments are celebrations in and of the Church, what was celebrated before the community cannot be set aside in the quasi-individual setting of the confessional.

The danger of internal forum solutions, therefore, is to abet the corrosive Western trajectory of the privatization of marriage: marriage is whatever one thinks it is. In civil law, this has resulted in marriage losing its essential characteristics in favor of self-will: sexual differentiation is trumped by homosexual want. In civil practice, it has resulted in the rise of cohabitation and the “ceremonialization” of the wedding: if we “love” each other, why do we need a license and a church? The internal forum solution threatens to import this privatization mentality into the Church: can what was celebrated before God, his Church, and his witnesses (including an ordained priest) be called into question in the essentially quasi-private forum of Confession? And how will we take account of both parties’ wills? What if both do not agree on the situation? Internal forum does not readily lend itself to assessing multiple consciences, and Confession does not work as a threesome. How, then, do we protect internal forum from becoming the ecclesiastical equivalent of “no-fault divorce” with all its faults and lies?

I will not even develop the question of whether, given the demise of the sacrament of Penance in the Western world, returning to the sacraments for an “internal forum Confession” will become the Catholic divorce court. Or whether, in Western practice, the truth for many will be that Confirmation remains the sacrament of exodus from the Church, at least until Matrimony (for those who want an ecclesiastical backdrop for the wedding pictures, or to keep mom quiet), to be followed by an internal forum Confession on the way to the next “marriage”—perhaps just before Junior needs to make his First Communion.

But I am also concerned about an unjustified expansion of the compass of internal forum approaches. Internal forum, rightly used, involves reaching a determination in conscience, consistent with Church teaching, that my circumstances—even though I cannot establish this in the external forum—can be morally reconciled. But I fear internal forum will be perverted into a determination, not about my situation, but about Church teaching: I do not believe that God expects me, in my Lebenswirklichkeit (“real life situation”) to adhere to the Church’s teaching on indissolubility. I might even pay that teaching lip service—yes, this is a goal to which I should aspire, an ideal at which I should aim—but certainly not attribute it any binding force to judge my life. Coupled with the perverted notion of conscience regnant in some circles—that conscience is the “ultimate judge” of right and wrong in the sense that it creates my moral norm independently of, and even in opposition to, explicit Church teaching—one faces the real danger of further malformed consciences operating on further false understandings of what the Church teaches in a binding way as regards faith and morals. I say “further” because we have already encountered this process in the failure of large parts of the hierarchy, after Humanae vitae, to teach fruitfulness as an essential element of acts of conjugal love.

As traditionally argued, internal forum solutions also sought to protect the external forum by requiring the person who wants to make use of them to “avoid scandal,” e.g., if the invalidity of a marriage was established in the internal forum only, then the party might receive Communion in a parish where he is unknown. In this way, one would presumably minimize scandal, the threat to the faith of others, and the impugnment of the teaching of the Church on indissolubility. If internal forum in the manner that some advocates of this “solution” seem to envision it is to be broadly (“mercifully”) applied on a wide scale, how in fact will the corrosive outcomes outlined above be avoided? Will we instead not create the impression “the Church is wrong about indissolubility but will not admit it, so it created this escape valve”?

The likely ways that internal forum approaches can and almost certainly would be abused will only further reinforce false notions about the sacraments, morality (especially sexual morality), and conscience.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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