Dear Father, In the recent synod of bishops on marriage there were proposals to allow people who are divorced and remarried civilly to resolve in the internal forum the matter of the validity of their marriage and the reception of Communion. What is this and is it acceptable?
As you say, there were proposals by some bishops to use the internal forum to resolve the question of the validity of one’s first marriage and the consequent reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried civilly. Nonetheless, in the final report agreed upon by the synod fathers there is no express mention of these people being admitted to Communion, although some might interpret certain statements in it as being open to this possibility.
What is meant by the internal forum in this context? In Church law we distinguish between the external forum, which is the publicly observable realm of such matters as whether a couple were married, whether someone was ordained a priest, etc, and the internal forum, which is the forum of conscience, where everything is between the individual person and God. This is the forum, for example, of the sacrament of penance and spiritual direction.
The internal forum solution in the matter of the reception of Communion by someone who is divorced and remarried civilly would involve the person coming to a judgment in their conscience that their first marriage was invalid, even though for whatever reason there was no declaration to that effect by a marriage tribunal. Would this be acceptable?
In 1994 Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, answered the question in the negative in Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried members of the faithful. It is extremely relevant to the present situation.
Cardinal Ratziner wrote: “In recent years, in various regions, different pastoral solutions in this area have been suggested according to which, to be sure, a general admission of the divorced and remarried to Eucharistic communion would not be possible, but the divorced and remarried members of the faithful could approach Holy Communion in specific cases when they consider themselves authorised according to a judgment of conscience to do so.
This would be the case, for example, when they had been abandoned completely unjustly, although they sincerely tried to save the previous marriage, or when they are convinced of the nullity of their previous marriage, although unable to demonstrate it in the external forum or when they have gone through a long period of reflexion and penance, or also when for morally valid reasons they cannot satisfy the obligation to separate. In some places, it has also been proposed that in order objectively to examine their actual situation, the divorced and remarried would have to consult a prudent and expert priest. This priest, however, would have to respect their eventual decision to approach Holy Communion, without this implying an official authorisation” (n. 3).
“With respect to the aforementioned new pastoral proposals, this Congregation deems itself obliged therefore to recall the doctrine and discipline of the Church in this matter. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ (cf. Mk 10:11-12), the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognised as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists” (n. 4).
“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” (n. 7).
It is clear from this that an “internal forum” personal decision about the invalidity of one’s first marriage is not acceptable. Couples in this situation should have recourse to the marriage tribunal, where the new norms given recently by Pope Francis will make the process much quicker. Or they should live as brother and sister, refraining from marital intimacy.