Toward informed discussion of the ‘internal forum’

Those suggesting that divorced-and-remarried Catholics may invoke the “internal forum” to justify their taking holy Communion despite an irregular marriage status should consider these six points

Some are suggesting that divorced-and-remarried Catholics may invoke the “internal forum” to justify their taking holy Communion despite their irregular marriage status (that is, notwithstanding their actual or apparent violation of Canon 1085 and in disregard of the provisions of Canons 915-916). Those suggesting the internal forum for these cases do so, I suggest, with an inadequate appreciation of the extensive reflections already made by the Church on the concept of the internal forum. May I suggest, then, that at least the following points be borne in mind during future discussions of the internal forum.

1. The primary canonical discussion of the internal forum occurs in the context of Canon 130, which canon references, however, not decisions of conscience, but rather, certain exercises of the “power of governance,” itself being an almost exclusively clerical and administrative activity, not a lay and spiritual one. Consider: “If the forum of conscience is ‘man’s most secret core, his sanctuary, [where] he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (GS 16)’, the canonical internal forum certainly cannot simply be identified with the forum of conscience, because it is subject not only to the human intellect as making judgments in close and exclusive relationship with God, but is also subject to the power of governance of the Church.” Urrutia, “Internal forum / external forum”, in Latourelle, ed., Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives I (1988) 637, my emphasis. Urrutia notes that the Code Revision Commission expressly rejected further treating of the ‘internal forum’ as tantamount to the ‘forum of conscience’, citing Communicationes 9: 235.

2. “The decision as to which forum is applicable in a given case should be guided by the following criteria: what is legally or factually known, or possibly going to be known, is to be decided in the external forum; what is secret and likely to remain secret may be decided in the internal forum.” Wijlens, in CLSA New Comm (2000) 186. But of course, a (canonical and civil) marriage, a subsequent civil divorce, and a later attempt at another (civil) marriage are “legally known” in virtue of their each being publicly recorded, and the majority of these situations are also “factually known” to the relatives, friends, etc., of those involved.

3. “A few examples of the exercise of power [in the internal forum are]: dispensation of certain occult impediments to marriage in special circumstances; [canonically] secret marriage; remission of reserved censures in certain cases.” Hill, in CLSA Comm (1985) 93-94; see likewise Viana, in Exeg. Comm (2004) I: 825. None of these classic examples of internal forum concerns looks to the reception of holy Communion by those remaining in irregular marriages; moreover, all require documentable intervention by ecclesiastical authority for their effectiveness; personal action on the part of the individuals concerned does not suffice.

4. “The consequences of this distinction [between the internal and external fora] are that, generally speaking, any decision for the internal forum has effect in that forum alone.” McGrath, GB&I Comm (1985) 77, original emphasis. Participating in holy Communion is, of course, an external act governed, in that respect, by the norms of the external forum (esp. Canons 915-916).

5. Re ‘hardship marriage’ situations (very common, when a first marriage is known, or at least presumed, valid, but it has undergone irretrievable breakdown): “The impossibility of accepting the so-called solution of the internal forum in the case of ‘hardship situations’ springs from the fact that it does not deal with the real problem even in the internal forum. The prior marriage is known to be valid and does not allow a new union (Canon 1085 § 1), and the new union remains invalid, and therefore inadmissible, not only in the external forum but also in the internal forum. The solution suggested in no way provides a solution to the defectiveness of the new union for any forum. It is merely palliative for the conscience of the persons involved, but an unlawful palliative because it clashes with principles that are valid for both the external forum and the internal forum.” Urrutia, 651-652.

6. Re ‘conflict marriage’ situations (very rare, where objective evidence makes the nullity of the first marriage certain, but there is no possibility of proving that nullity in a tribunal): There is a theoretical (“decidedly hypothetical”) possibility that an internal forum solution might make possible a valid ‘second’ marriage here, but “it cannot be recognized in the external forum, just as is laid down by Canon 130. And this is precisely why, even if the internal forum solution truly deals with the [second marriage], in such cases it can be applied [that is, recognized to the point of enabling, inter alia, reception of holy Communion] only where the fact of the prior union, and the fact that its nullity has not been declared, are not known by the ecclesial community.” Urrutia, 651-652. Urrutia goes on to explain the damage done to the community’s respect for marriage when a second marriage, valid in the internal forum but presumptively invalid in the external, becomes known. He concludes: “The internal forum solution cannot become an external forum solution unless there is certainty in the community as regards the nullity of the first union and [about] the valid celebration of the second—a certainty we cannot reasonably expect to be based on the subjective convictions of the persons involved…”

From the above, it seems to me that proponents of the “internal forum solution” for reception of holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried Catholics need, at a minimum, to account for (1) how individual lay persons can exercise a power of ecclesiastical governance on their own behalf; (2) how any internal forum solution is applicable to cases where the salient facts of the matter are legally, and usually practically, well-known to the faith community; (3) how persons in ‘hardship marriages’ situations can be encouraged to invoke any solution that is at best a false palliative; and (4) how even persons in rare ‘conflict marriages’ situations can be encouraged to invoke an internal forum solution when their situation is likely to be known in the community.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.