Who we are
What we do
THE INTERNAL FORUM -- a concise explication
The Internal Forum is a term used to describe a decision, by a Catholic, to act in a certain way, a decision arrived at by a person's bringing to bear his/her mind (conscience) on a particular moral problem.
In arriving at a decision to act in a certain way (to arrive at an "informed conscience"), the person asks several questions:
1) What does the Bible say about the problem? (The answer often is: Nothing. There's nothing, for example, in the Bible about annulments, not to mention stem-cell research or capital punishment, and so forth).
2) What does the official Church say about the problem? The person listens to what the Church says with great respect -- but that's not the be-all and end-all of the matter. According to Vatican II, in forming her conscience, a Catholic must pay "due respect" to what the Church teaches (see the Decree on Religious Liberty--Dignitatis humanae ).
Some of the bishops at the Council wanted a stronger statement -- viz. Catholics must obey official teaching. This version was voted down in favor of the softer statement mentioned above. Before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger stated that sometimes a Catholic must follow her conscience, even when this means disagreeing with the Pope. "Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church"
(Pope Benedict XVI [then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger], Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Vorgrimler, 1968, on Gaudium et spes,
part 1,chapter 1.).
3) What do good Catholics do in regard to the issue being examined? What is the "sense of the faithful"? For example, over 90% of RCs act against the official teaching on artificial birth control. Only 10 - 12 % of US Catholics who are eligible for annulments actually apply for one. The other 90% don't bother, but lead fully Catholic lives, including receiving the Eucharist. This factor, the sense of the faithful, brings into play the ancient Catholic teaching on Reception. This teaching states that, if the body of the faithful doesn't accept a particular Church teaching, then the teaching is inauthentic. The birth control teaching is an example of this. (ARCC has published a wonderful pamphlet on Reception. It is written by one of the foremost canon lawyers in the US - Jim Coriden). It can be found at http://arcc-catholic-rights.net/doctrine_of_reception.htm ).
There are several reasons why Catholics don't bother to go through the annulment process:Their sense of privacy is repelled by the thought of some stranger delving into the intimate details of their previous marriage; a non-Catholic spouse does not see what business of the Catholic Church it is to be rummaging around in their previous marriage; often, when applying for an annulment, the petitioner runs afoul of insensitive tribunal officials and opts out of the procedure; witnesses cannot be found or are not willing to testify (although some diocesan tribunals accept the unsupported statements of the petitioner, provided the latter can produce character witnesses who will testify that the petitioner is a truthful person); some petitioners are simply not literate enough to answer satisfactorily the many searching questions in the annulment papers; some think the process is legalism rampant; some know full well that their first marriage was indeed a sacramental marriage, and thus not able to be annulled, but that at some time, say after five years, the marriage ceased to be a sacramental marriage, so that remarriage became an option...
4) What do theologians say about the issue in question? This brings into play another little known teaching of the Church -- the principle of Probabilism. Probabilism states that Catholics may act according to the teaching of respected theologians, even when that teaching disagrees with the official teaching of the Church. It is no secret that many moral theologians and canonists are not happy with the annulment process, and encourage the use of the internal forum.
5) What do Protestants and Jews say about the question at issue? Answer: they find the annulment procedure baffling if not offensive.
This emphasis on the primacy of conscience is part of a long and continuous Catholic tradition. Almost 800 years ago Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that if one has carefully considered all options and believes in good conscience that one must do a certain act or refrain from doing a certain act then it is a sin not to follow the command of one's conscience, no matter what the official teachings of the Church happen to be. In other words, ultimately, the authority of one's "well-formed conscience" supersedes the authority of the Church.
In forming their consciences, then, Catholics prayerfully ask the five questions mentioned, and act accordingly, even when their actions go contrary to the Church's official teaching -- on annulments or any other moral issue.
Questions From a Ewe
Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)