The Dilemma of Divorced Catholics
by Father John Catoir, J.C.D.
WHAT IS THE INTERNAL FORUM?
The internal forum is the forum of conscience. The external forum is the ecclesiastical
court of law.
Occasionally petitioners are afraid of dredging up the history of their failed
marriage. Some fear that their former spouse might do them harm. Whatever the
reason they cannot bring themselves to proceed with a formal case.
Then there are those cases where because of some error in judgment made by a
priest or a tribunal official justice was not rendered. Justice delayed is justice
If a person believes his or her prior marriage is invalid, but cannot prove
it they should seek counsel. Many Catholics have divorced and later remarried
before a Justice of the Peace without having consulted anyone, and without having
obtained a Church annulment.
This is a violation of Canon law, and they are presumed to be living in sin.
Suppose however that the legal presumption of the validity of the first was
incorrect. Suppose there was a defective intention which could not be proved.
Rare though it may be, such a thing can happen. Following one's conscience may
be justified in some circumstances. Every marriage is different. It is impossible
to judge me state of another person's soul based on the known facts of a case.
Sometimes things are not as they appear. Sometimes the so-called sinners are
saints and the upstanding saints turn out to be sinners.
Someone who wakes up from the nightmare of a disastrous marriage in a state
of disorientation may not understand the laws of the Church. The victim of abuse
and violence seldom has the objectivity of a trained professional. It takes
a long time to recover from a nightmare.
If such a person begins to heal, and for the first time finds true love, it
is not difficult to see how the new relationship can be perceived to be a gift
from God. The couple begins living together, feeling absolutely clean before
God. They try for an annulment but are told they have no case or they cannot
prove their allegations. What are they to do?
They may decide to consult a priest confessor or counselor for advice. The priest
may encourage them to follow their conscience if the facts seem to support their
moral convictions. The priest may not marry them because this would be simulating
the sacrament, but he can encourage them to trust a well-formed and certain
Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, has forbidden
couples from receiving the Eucharist if they are not validly married. Many of
them receive anyway believing that their second marriage is not a sin but a
Such a reception of Holy Communion violates the letter of the law, but freedom
of conscience comes into play here. The natural law right to marry must be weighed
against the doubt about the validity of the first marriage. Very few priests
would turn anyone away from receiving the Eucharist. The burden is on the person
receiving to do what they think is the right thing.
What about the Magisterium?
Isn't a Catholic is bound to form his or her conscience according to the teaching
of the Church's highest teaching authority? Yes, but what exactly does that
Theologian and scholar Father Avery Dulles S.J., now Cardinal Dulles, gave a
talk in 1991 to Cardinals, archbishops and bishops from all over North America.
He explained the relationship between conscience and the magisterium in this
way: "There is no perfect identity between conscience and the magisterium
of the Church. Conscience is an interior, not an outer, voice...The magisterium
fulfills the aspirations of conscience by enabling it to find the moral good
at which it aims...For members of the Church, the magisterium is one, but only
one, informant of conscience." (Proceedings of me Tenth Bishops' Workshop,
Dallas Texas, p. 142).
In other words there are times when an informed conscience is not a conformed
conscience. The Church urges us to obey and conform, but this is not always
possible. The lawmaker cannot envision every set of circumstances when writing
a law. Some people fall through the cracks and the internal forum is a safety
net for them.
The Church upholds freedom of conscience to the extent that even if a person
is in error, he or she must obey their conscience. Outsiders should respect
the sincere and well-formed conscience of another person even if they disagree
In my book"Where Do You Stand With The Church The Dilemma of Divorced Catholics,"
(Alba House, NY, 1996) I go into all these questions in greater detail.
I hope this brief outline is of help to you as you try to understand the Church's
discipline on marriage. The internal forum is not a license to do as you will,
it is a sacred faculty to help you discern the truth as you stand before God.
One day we will all be judged on the way we have loved one another. This essential
truth of the Gospel must be weighed carefully in all the decisions we make in
life. I wish you well in all that you do and I pray that God will bless you