Misuse of Internal Forum

Dear Catholic Exchange,

I have Catholic friend who was married in the Catholic Church and then had children. She married a man who was baptized Catholic but never practiced his faith and never made his first Holy Communion. He had been married three times prior to their marriage – never in the church and never to a catholic. This couple was married by a pastor from a non-denominational reform church. They both decided to come back into the catholic church were given the sacraments of reconciliation and made their first Holy Communion and confirmation at one Easter ceremony by the Diocese of San Diego California. At their church there, within several months they were both made Eucharistic ministers and lectors in the church, doing good works, taking Holy Communion to the sick, feeding the poor, etc.

I told them they needed seek an annulment from the wife's first marriage in the church and they said their pastor waived the required annulment. They said they had been open with the pastor and told him of the first marriage in the church. I spoke with my priest and told him the story, being my brother was the man in this story, and he said the priest had the final say and to leave it alone or I would drive them out of the church. So I did and now I just pray they seek an annulment instead of asking them anymore.

Thanks for any feedback,


Dear Maddy,

What you describe appears to be a misuse of the "internal forum" to solve the problem of divorce and remarriage.

In canonical terms, a forum is the place where a judgment or other ecclesiastical act takes place. A "competent forum" is one in which the person making the judgment has the authority to do so. An external forum addresses matters that concern the public welfare of the Church and are, thus, a matter of public record. Examples of matters in the external forum would be ecclesiastical trials, questions posed to the Roman Curia in which the decision affects a portion or the whole of the Church and matters such as cases of divorce, annulments, etc.

The internal forum refers to matters of conscience. The most perfect and clear example of judgments in the internal forum would be the Sacrament of Penance. When a person confesses sins, the confessional is the "competent forum" in which the priest is the legitimate judge. The priest judges if the sins are to be remitted or retained (Cf.: John 20:23), what the guilt of the penitent is and, therefore, what the appropriate penance is for the sinner. No other forum or judge can usurp the judgment given in the confessional and, of course, the confessional remains absolutely inviolate under any circumstances and cannot be a matter of public record (Code of Canon Law [CIC], canon 983 § 1 & 2).

The parish priest may have spoken to the couple in the internal forum and helped them to determine whether or not they think they were validly married to other persons before marrying each other. The problem is that internal forum cannot be substituted for any reason for matters in which the competent forum is external. In short, the consent between the two persons was exchanged in the external forum, and marriage cases are resolved in the external forum.

"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. . . . [T]he 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." (Cardinal Ratzinger, Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF], Reception of Communion: Divorced-and-Remarried Catholics; Origins, Oct. 27, 1994, nos. 7-8).

Recently, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the Apostolic Penitentiary whose competence is the internal forum, said in an address in England, "Recourse to a so-called "internal forum solution" in order to resolve conflicts arising from irregular marriages is duplicitous." (Address to the Catenian Association ay 14, 2005)

United in the Faith,

Eric Stoutz

Information Specialist

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