Pope Francis and the internal forum solution

James McManus CSSR

This article explores the moral issue of giving Holy Communion to Catholic couples who have entered a second marriage after divorce. Pope Francis has opened up discussion on this pressing pastoral situation in which many Catholics find themselves today. James McManus CSsR taught Moral Theology for six years, and has been more recently involved in renewal courses for priests and religious. He is currently based in the Redemptorist Renewal Centre in Perth, Scotland.

Some bishops and cardinals have questioned Pope Francis’ teaching authority and implied that the teaching in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is erroneous. They say that he has departed from the traditional teaching and practice of the Church. They insist that those who are divorced and remarried can never be admitted to Holy Communion if they do not separate or at least live as ‘brother and sister’. That, they say, has been the Tradition of the Church.

Far from departing from the pastoral tradition of the Church in dealing with couples in second unions after divorce, Pope Francis is reaffirming the practice known as ‘the internal forum solution’ which has been widely used throughout the history of the Church.

In 1970 I collaborated with Frs Kevin Kelly and Henry Allard1 in writing a series of articles for The Moral Theology Forum in The Clergy Review on the problems facing divorced and remarried Catholics. We suggested that the ‘internal forum solution’ could open the door to the sacraments if, after a period of accompaniment and discernment with their parish priest, the couple and the priest believed that in their conscience the second marriage was a good and holy union and that they were doing their best to live their Christian lives faithfully and bringing up their children in the Catholic faith. To avoid gossip or scandal of any kind they could receive Communion in a parish where the situation of their marriage was not known. We were not reprimanded by any bishop nor reported to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for heresy. In fact, we were invited by the British Canon Law Association to discuss our proposals with them at their annual general meeting and we received a very positive response.

In 1972 Professor Joseph Ratzinger of Regensburg University (the future Pope Benedict XVI) wrote an article On the Indissolubility of Marriage, in which he discussed the problems of those divorced and remarried and said:

When the second marriage produces moral obligations with regard to their children, the family, and even the wife and there are no analogous obligations stemming from the first marriage; when for moral reasons, therefore, the cessation of the second marriage is practically not a real possibility (‘magnorum est’, Gregory 11 says) openness to Eucharistic communion, after a trial period, certainly seems to be just and fully in line with the tradition of the Church.2

Professor Ratzinger’s view that his proposal was ‘fully in line with the tradition of the Church’ received confirmation the following year when Cardinal Franjo Seper, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in response to a question posed by Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia encouraged bishops to act as:

Pastors of souls with particular solicitude toward those who live in irregular unions, seeking to resolve these cases through the use of the approved practices of the Church in the internal forum, as well as other just means.3

The CDF confirmed that the internal forum solution was an ‘approved practice of the Church’. But when further questions were being asked about this phrase ‘approved practices of the Church’, Archbishop Hamer, Secretary of the CDF responded in a letter to Cardinal Bernardin in 1975 saying:

I would like to state now that this phrase must be understood in the context of traditional moral theology. These couples (divorced and civilly remarried) may be allowed to receive the sacraments on two conditions: that they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles and that they receive the sacraments in churches in which they are not known so that they will not create any scandal.4
These two interventions from the CDF show clearly that the internal forum solution was acceptable as a pastoral practice in the Church. After the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the Family, St John Paul published his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio in 1981. Many people read this magnificent document on marriage as imposing a complete ban on ever admitting divorced and remarried to the sacraments if they did not separate or live as brother and sister. But, after this Synod of Bishops on the Family, and before the publication of Familiaris Consortio, Cardinal Ratzinger, by now the Archbishop of Munich, allowed couples in second marriages who were convinced that their first union was invalid, despite there being no judicial proof, to receive Holy Communion. In a pastoral letter he wrote:

The Synod established a special category for those who have reached the conviction in conscience that their first marriage was null, even when the juridical proof is not available: in such instances, in conformity with a judgement based on conscience, and provided that scandal be avoided, admission to the Eucharist may be authorized.5

The internal forum and external forum
The Canon Law of the Church states the difference between the external forum and the internal forum in this way:
Of itself, the power of governance is exercised for the external forum; sometimes, however, it is exercised for the internal forum alone, so that the effects which its exercise is meant to have for the external forum are not recognized there, except insofar as the law establishes it in determined cases. (Canon 130)

The laws of the Church govern all the actions and decisions made in the external forum, that is in the social dimension, in the relationships of the faithful with each other within the community of the Church, e.g. baptisms, marriage, ordination, religious profession and so on. The internal forum concerns the relationship which the faithful have with God in their own conscience.

In the internal forum the primacy of conscience through which the person hears God’s voice and receives God’s guidance is recognised. It invites the person to make a sincere examination of conscience, to cultivate a deep desire to discern God’s will and to live by it. The laws governing the external forum do not apply in the internal forum. That is why the CDF, quoted above, acknowledged that a couple divorced and remarried could, in certain circumstances, receive Holy Communion. If the Church began to make laws for the internal forum it would cease to be internal and become external.

A change in sacramental practice
The Synod of Bishops in 1980, by a large majority, requested St John Paul to invite theologians to study the system in the Orthodox churches where remarriage is accepted.6 In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio: Christian Family in the World Today, St John Paul said that the divorced and remarried should receive every pastoral support but that they could not receive the sacraments. He wrote:
‘Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptised persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace ... However the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage’.7

St Pope John Paul II gave as his reasons for excluding divorced and remarried individuals or couples from the sacraments the fact that their condition ‘objectively contradicts that union of love between Christ and the Church’ and the confusion it could create about the indissolubility of marriage. He encouraged them to become fully involved in the Christian life of the community and he asked pastors to take pastoral care of them. He would have been very aware of the answers to the questions concerning the internal forum solution which the CDF sent to Cardinal Kroll and Cardinal Bernardin in America just a few years before he became Pope. Also, he would have been well aware that Cardinal Ratzinger, whom he had appointed Prefect of the CDF, agreed with those pastoral practices. However, Cardinal Ratzinger, in loyal obedience, assented to the magisterial teaching of St Pope John Paul. He brought his own thinking into line with the pastoral approach outlined by St John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. As Prefect of the CDF he faithfully followed St John Paul’s stricter pastoral approach. In his 1994 and 1998 letters he defended the universal pastoral practice of refusing Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried while emphasizing strongly the need to integrate them fully in the life of the parish community by all other means. Yet, we know that he was aware that this universal norm posed its own problems. Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna recounts that while speaking with Cardinal Ratzinger about the internal forum solution in 1994 he asked him, ‘Is it possible that the old praxis that was taken for granted and I knew before the Second Vatican Council, is still valid?’ The Cardinal responded: ‘The general norm is very clear; and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all cases exhaustively.’8

Pope Francis makes a similar evaluation of his own Apostolic Exhortation when he says:

Neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognise that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’9 the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.10

Objective and subjective levels
On the objective level there is no disagreement between the teaching of St John Paul’s Familaris Consortio and Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia: the Joy of Love. Both papal documents recognise that the divorced and remarried are in a situation that is objectively wrong. Subjectively, however, on the level of conscience, the pastor has to ask these questions among others:
Are the couple themselves consciously aware of living in a sinful state?;

Are they seeking to live the Christian life to the best of their ability?

Are they convinced in their conscience that they are doing all they can to be faithful members of Christ’s Body and to bring up their families in the faith?

These are the pastoral, subjective questions which the pastor or confessor will have to explore as he accompanies the couple on their spiritual journey and encourages them to discern God’s will and purpose for their lives.

All the factors in the life of the couple have to be taken into account. The Church’s long tradition helps us to understand why good people often find themselves in difficult ecclesiastical and moral situations. Pope Francis wants to address all these circumstances with compassion and tenderness. He says in his own Apostolic Exhortation: ‘I will offer the invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.’11 He makes it clear, at the beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation, that he will not confine his teaching to the external forum, to the specific laws of the Church, but will discuss how to help couples who have ‘fallen short of the Lord’s demands’ through pastoral discernment.

Accompaniment and discernment
The pastor approaches the couple, not just on the level of the external forum, the Church’s law on marriage, the objective level, but also on the level of the internal forum, the subjective level, the level of their conscience. The Second Vatican Council said:

Their conscience is people’s most secret core, and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths.12

Since the Church teaches so clearly that the voice of God ‘echoes in their depths’ the pastor or confessor will have to gratefully accept what the Lord is saying to them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘When they listen to their conscience, prudent men and women can hear God speaking’ (No. 1777).

That is why Pope Francis rightly emphasises the need of accompaniment. Walking with them on the road of life; listening to their experience of life and their experience of God in their lives; hearing them talk about what they believe God is asking of them and how they are responding to God’s love and the love of each other, these are the pastoral means for helping them to discern God’s will for themselves and their family. This will take time and prayer. It is in this pastoral relationship of discernment and helping that Pope Francis says:

In certain cases, this help can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine for the weak.13

The pastoral practice of accompaniment is Pope Francis’ great contribution to the pastoral ministry in general and the care of the divorced and remarried in particular. It says to them ‘I will walk all the way with you’ and not ‘come back when you have decided to separate or live as brother and sister and then I will be able to help you’. Discernment will take place in non-judgemental accompaniment. The light of the Spirit helps them to understand more fully their relationship with Christ, with one another and with the Church. As Pope Francis says:

For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.14

The pastor or confessor is now acting in the internal forum, and, as we have seen, the tradition of the Church supports the judgement which the pastor and the couple reach in the internal forum. If the pastor or confessor concludes that the couple believe in their conscience that their union is good and holy, that they cannot live without it, and that scandal can be avoided, he should respect their conscience. And if they express a longing for Holy Communion he can say yes. Leading canon lawyer Fr Francis Morrisey, aware of the complications that a change of pastors could create in this kind of pastoral situation, says:
Pastorally speaking, it would be important for the couple to make their decision once and for all, and not keep bringing it up to priests in confession or in conversation. Since the matter is dealt with in the internal forum, there can be no certificate or document stating that the couple has been authorised to receive the sacraments. Some of the faithful are uneasy about this lack of ‘proof’, but this is part of the ‘internal’ dimension of the solution.15

Pope Francis rejects very strongly the judgmental, un-Christian description of all such second unions as ‘living in sin’. In a paragraph worth pondering deeply he says:

The Church possesses a solid body of reflections concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’ or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’.16


The fact that the internal forum solution could be open to abuse is no reason for a priest or lay minister not to explore it with those in need. Pope Francis also entrusts this accompaniment and discernment to the lay faithful. He writes:

I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth.17

The formation of conscience is achieved, not through a list of what is right or what is wrong, but through the pastoral care that involves accompaniment on the journey of life and prayerful discernment. Pope Francis:

Yet conscience can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with certain security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.18
It is for this reason that Pope Francis opens, once again, the discussion of the internal forum solution for those who are divorced and remarried. By indicating that in certain pastoral circumstances, after due discernment, a person or a couple may receive Holy Communion, he is reaffirming the traditional, sacramental practice referred to by Cardinal Franjo Seper, Prefect of the CDF in 1973 and the response from the same Congregation that Archbishop Hamer gave in 1975.

The living magisterium
St John Paul II was calmly aware that his successors, in the social and cultural revolution taking place throughout the world, will continue to read the signs of the times in the assurance that Christ guides them. He drew attention to this in an audience address in 1993:

In its form or expression the magisterium can vary according to the person who exercises it, his interpretation of the needs of the time, his style of thought and communication. However, in its relationship to the living truth, Christ, has been, is and will always be its vital force.19

St John Paul II understood well that different times need a re-evaluation of pastoral practices. It is the pastoral practice of automatically excluding divorced and remarried Catholics from the sacraments, despite their best efforts to live the Christian life and despite their conviction in their own consciences that they are not in a sinful relationship but in one that is being blessed by God, that Pope Francis is re-evaluating in line with the long tradition of the internal forum solution in the Church. St John Paul II would say ‘Christ is the vital force’ of this magisterial re-evaluation. It is not a change in doctrine but a change in pastoral care and sacramental practice.

What Pope Benedict XVI said in his address to the Roman Rota is relevant to the discussion and disagreements that are taking place in the Church today:

It is therefore necessary to abrogate norms that prove antiquated; to modify those in need of correction; to interpret – in the light of the living Magisterium those that are doubtful, and lastly to fill possible lacunae legis.20

The living Magisterium of which, to repeat St John Paul II’s phrase, ‘Christ is the vital force’, lives today in Pope Francis. In the words of Pope Pius XII:
Whatever may be the name, the face, the human origins of any pope, it is always Peter who lives in him: it is Peter who rules and governs21
It is the Holy Spirit who chooses the pope. That is why we believe, with Pope Pius XII, that ‘Peter rules and governs’ through Pope Francis today.22    

1     Fr Kevin Kelly, a Liverpool priest and great moral theologian, died in October 2018.
Fr Henry Allard was a member of the Sacred Heart Fathers and came from Holland. He died in the 1990’s.
2     Walford, S., Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defence of Truth and Mercy, 2018 Paulist Press.
3     Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defence of Truth and Mercy
4     Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defence of Truth and Mercy
5     Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defence of Truth and Mercy
6     Politi, M., Pope Francis Among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution, Columbia University Press, 2018
7     St. Pope John Paul ll, Familiaris Consortio, (1981) paragraph 84.
8 & 9  Stephen Walford, op.cit.
10    Synod, Final Report 51
11    Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 300. In footnote 336 of this paragraph Pope Francis says ‘This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.’
12    Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 6
13    The Church in the Modern World, 16
14    Amoris Laetitia 305, footnote 351
15    Amoris Laetitia, 300
16    Morrisey, F., Some pastoral implications arising from chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia , May 2016
17    Amoris Laetitia, 301
18    Amoris Laetitia, 312
19    Amoris Laetitia 303
20    Audience 10 March, 1993 (cit. in Stephen Walford, p. 153)
21    Pope Benedict XVl, Address to the members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, January 26, 2008
22    Pope Pius XII, Address to Newlyweds, January 17, 1940

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