Throwing Doctrine to the Lions? German Bishops Float ‘Internal Forum’ Proposal

Critics say that the proposal misconstrues previous papal teachings and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, in a final synod push to advance Cardinal Kasper’s proposal on Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Inside the synod hall during meetings on Oct. 21.
Inside the synod hall during meetings on Oct. 21. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — The latest form of a proposal from German-speaking bishops to readmit divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to holy Communion — suggesting it might be dealt with through internal forum — has come under fire for being a “cheap trick” to change pastoral practice that would go against canon law and ultimately alter Church doctrine.

Professor Thomas Stark, who teaches at the Benedict XVI Academy of Philosophy and Theology (Heiligenkreuz) near Vienna, said the proposal, presented by the German-language small group at the synod on the family on Wednesday, was just another means to “get their agenda through” and a repetition of what they have proposed before, but now “in other clothes.”

On Wednesday, the German-speaking group of synod fathers moderated by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna argued that in particular cases the “path of reflection and penance” can take place “in the forum internum” (essentially in private) in an “objective situation,” along with a priest confessor. By doing so, they claimed this could “contribute to the personal formation of conscience and to a clarification to what extent access to the sacraments is possible.”

With the exception of couples who can live in continence as “brother and sister,” Catholics who civilly remarry following divorce have always been prohibited from receiving holy Communion unless they obtain declarations of nullity of their first marriage. Based on Christ’s teaching (Mark 10:2-12), those who divorce and subsequently remarry are committing adultery.

The reception of Communion issue has dominated the synod, largely because, if endorsed, it could open the floodgates to Church validation of a range of extramarital unions that the Church has always considered sinful.

The German-speaking synod fathers tried to allay fears of their proposal by saying in their report it would be consistent with a part of Paragraph 84 of St. Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which calls for "careful discernment of situations.” (However, they omitted reference to another section of Paragraph 84, which specifically reaffirms the Church’s practice of “not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried”).

“An honest appraisal,” the German-speaking synod fathers proposed, could “strengthen the trust in the mercy of God, which is refused to no one who brings his failure and distress before him.”


Doctrinal and Canonical Problems

But a canon lawyer dismissed the proposal, which critics say is a slightly modified version of the “Cardinal Kasper thesis,” which would admit remarried divorcees to Communion after a period of penance, as impossible to reconcile with divine and canon law.

The issue of Communion for such Catholics “is something intrinsic to the reality of Communion and marriage, so this is not just a matter of discipline but doctrine,” said Opus Dei Father Carlos José Errázuriz, professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “This is about divine law that cannot have exceptions as we have in human laws, so if you introduce this kind of solution, in practice it’s more or less the same as abolishing it [the sacrament of matrimony].”

Father Errazuriz told the Register Oct. 21 he couldn’t see the reasons to “introduce these exceptions” and that he was “not convinced about reasons for them.” He underlined the objective nature of the sacrament of marriage, something that critics say will be weakened by making it a subjective matter of conscience and pointed out that it was not possible to have a “completely different solution” for an internal forum compared to an external one.

What takes place in internal forum “will eventually be known in the external forum, so I don’t see this as a kind of solution,” he explained, since it will likely become public knowledge that remarried divorcees are receiving Communion. Father Errazuriz added that, while finding creative pastoral solutions to problems is part of the tradition of the Church, that’s not what is being proposed in this case.


Cardinal Marx

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said he and his brother bishops, who included Cardinals Kasper and Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had made a “very important” study of St. Thomas Aquinas to ascertain what could be applied to “the special situation” of remarried divorcees and to each “special person in his situation.”

Cardinal Marx said it’s a “normal challenge” in the internal forum for the “pastoral accompaniment of a person in a spiritual way,” and that is the “task of the priest.”

Despite the Church recognizing marriage as a public act, he said such accompaniment isn’t a public process, “but a spiritual way” through which “it might be possible to make a full reconciliation.” He believes that may mean some new guidelines from Rome, but that it was ultimately “the responsibility of the bishops within the internal forum” to have a priest pursue this “spiritual way with these people.”

Cardinal Marx told reporters many articles and books have been written on the subject, but until now there has never been the push “to bring these forces together.” The synod, he said, “can make a push to bring this forward — that was the proposal in our report.” He added that the German-speaking bishops were waiting to see how the proposal would end up in the relatio finalis (final report to be presented to the Pope over the weekend), and then “we’ll see what we can do with it.”


Deductive Flaws

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, the vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, said the irony was that, despite some of German bishops speaking out against deductive reasoning earlier in the synodal process, they were now doing “just that: to deduce conclusions that they’ve already arrived at.”

Father Petri said the German synodal argumentation was “very strange” and suggested they might be invoking St. Thomas Aquinas because he “talks about prudence and the virtue of prudence,” but added: “That’s not we’re talking about.”

“We’re talking about pastors of the Church making sure that the faithful’s conscience is properly formed.” St. Thomas, he said, “was very clear that sinners should not approach the Eucharist” without the minimum requirements. He added that St. Thomas “agreed that the Eucharist was medicine for sin, but then so are all the sacraments.”

St. Thomas is “very clear” that the Eucharist “should not be given as a medicine until one is out of the sickness of sin, of grave sin,” Father Petri said.

Regarding the “internal forum” more specifically, Father Petri said that St. Thomas “doesn’t talk about that to my knowledge,” and it was a “much later development of canon law.” He believes Cardinal Marx was most likely referring to “prudential decisions and when it’s difficult to know the right thing to do.”

Father Petri said what the German-speaking group seems to desire is for individuals “to judge for themselves,” but “they’re simply not equipped to do that because their conscience has not been formed; that’s the role of the pastor.” And the pastor, too, may not be adequately formed to help the person pursue this “spiritual way.”

Father Errázuriz agreed that if the traditional rules on eligibility for reception of holy Communion are not used, “there’ll be no point of reference for solving the problem because you’re not helping people to see the will of God.”


Deceptive Tactics?

It was noted that during the press briefing Cardinal Marx never cited a direct quote of St. Thomas Aquinas, but merely referred to him in more general terms. 

By referring to Aquinas “in some vague way,” Stark said, the German cardinal seemed to indicate that he “didn’t read” what the 13th-century doctor of the Church wrote about the matter, “and if he did, he didn’t understand it.”

Stark added that it was another example of the “old, cheap tricks” that are being pursued by the German bishops and their allies, to advance their agenda on reception of Communion indirectly by devolving the authority over the matter from the Pope to individual bishops or to bishops’ conferences. “It is nothing new, just the old Kasper proposal in other clothes, in my opinion.”

Father Errázuriz said the Church can always “better accompany everyone,” and mercy and charity are important, but he stressed that “authentic mercy and charity require truth or it’s not a service to people. They are just making the impression that it’s okay, but it’s not okay.”

He stressed the “main clarification” on this matter has already been stated in Familiaris Consortio, as well as Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity). “There’s still a lot to do, and we need to go deeper of course, but along a very traditional line, not towards a point which hasn’t been clarified by this tradition,” he added.

Like others, Father Errázuriz sees the adapted proposal as a “veiled attempt” to change the Church’s teaching on marriage.

“They’re trying to present an alternative [to the Kasper proposal], but it’s not really anything different,” he said. “The problems with that proposal have not substantially changed.”


Diminishing Support

The report was published as Cardinal Kasper’s proposal appeared to be dead in the water among the majority of the synod fathers. Most of the small groups either were clearly unfavorable towards it or did not mention it.

Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said there was “not one word” about the issue in his small group. The French Catholic newspaper La Croix reported that only one in four of the synod fathers were now in favor.

The draft relatio finalis will be presented later today to the synod fathers, who will be able to request amendments tomorrow. The synod secretariat will present the final text in Italian on Saturday morning (with an interpreter giving a live translation), and it will be voted upon, paragraph by paragraph, on Saturday afternoon, with all paragraphs requiring a two-thirds vote of approval from the synod fathers.

The final report then will be presented to the Pope, who will decide whether to make it public or not.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He is the author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?

An Investigation Into Alleged Manipulation at the

Extraordinary Synod on the Family (Ignatius, 2015).