In recent days the Synod on the Family a new pathway - described as the internal forum solution - has emerged for allowing the divorced and remarried to return to communion.
Today the Vatican put out a briefing note to journalists on what it means. Put simply, in Catholic theology there is the notion of both an external and internal forum. The external relates to where the Church acts publicly, in the realm of canon law and authority, for example. The internal is concerned with conscience and pastoral practice.
When it comes to marriage the external forum deals with questions of nullity and whether a marriage was valid in the first place. Anyone who is divorced and remarried and wants to return to communion is obliged first to see if the “external” path of receiving an annulment is possible.
Quite often there are many reasons why this option is not possible so the internal solution becomes a possibility. With the help of a priest, an individual forms their conscience about the validity of their first marriage or its breakdown. By its nature the internal forum is confidential and is “based on pastoral judgment, a decision made by the appropriate priest.”
It is possible, therefore, that an individual can return to communion as a result of this discernment process.
During the synod the German speaking bishops have proposed this as a way forward. It does not require “penitential pathways” for the divorced and remarried to follow nor does it affect the teaching on indissolubility of marriage.
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The truth is, however, that the internal forum solution is not a new idea. At a briefing with journalists today Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who is part of the 10-man committee drafting the synod’s final document, said it was first proposed by German moral theologian Bernard Haring.
He wrote an article in 1970, for a canon law publication for the Catholic University of America, The Jurist, titled Internal Forum Solutions to Insoluble Marriage Cases.
The proposal has been opposed by conservatives as allowing the remarried to access the sacraments by the back door. For them, it is the external forum or nothing.
In 1991, the then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote to The Tablet to rule out the internal forum as a possibility. He was responding to an article here which suggested he was in favour.
The reality is, however, that in many dioceses across the western world, priests are already using the internal forum solution, be it in the confessional or privately.
There are huge numbers of cases of people who are unable to pursue annulments.
Even with the Pope’s new guidelines to speed up the process many whose marriages have failed find obtaining an annulment is too difficult because they cannot establish that their first marriage was invalid.
Others believe strongly that their first marriage simply failed or died rather than being null or invalid in the first place.
So instead they are receiving the eucharist after a deep examination of conscience, with the help of a spiritual guide.
It seems unlikely that the synod will rule either way on this topic. Cardinal Gracias said the Church is still “seeking out a path” and that the final document will be more of a guide than anything else. Further study is likely.
In the meantime, the internal forum solution will probably continue to be used by many priests keen to exercise pastoral sensitivity.