Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), has just made comments that seem to be critical of the Four Cardinals and their published Dubia. The pope’s close friend, the journalist Andrea Tornielli, immediately picked up on these words and has now published a report on them in the Italian La Stampa publication, Vatican Insider.
In an 8 January interview given on television to an Italian TV station, TGCOM24, Cardinal Müller even said that he was surprised that the Letter of the Four Cardinals to the pope – containing the dubia concerning Amoris Laetitia – had been published. “I do not like that,” he added. In Müller’s eyes, it is not at all appropriate “almost to force the pope to answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’” with regard to the dubia, especially because “there is not any danger to the Faith” which would then fittingly call for such a fraternal correction. Thus, such a correction of the pope “seems to me far away,” according to the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine. He also considers it unfortunate that these matters are now being discussed “publicly.”
In the German cardinal’s eyes “Amoris Laetitia is very clear in its doctrine and [in it] we can interpret [sic] the whole doctrine of Jesus concerning marriage, the whole doctrine of the Church of 2000 years history.” Moreover, for Pope Francis, it is all about “discerning the situation of those people who live in irregular [sic] unions” and thus about helping them to “find a new integration into the Church according to the conditions of the Sacraments and according to the Christian message on marriage.” Cardinal Müller adds that he does “not see any contradiction: on the one side we have the clear doctrine on marriage, on the other the obligation of the Church to help those persons in difficulties.”
This new interview could easily be interpreted as a rebuke of the Four Cardinals and of their arguably courageous act of publishing their own serious objections about certain aspects of Amoris Laetitia. Additionally, Cardinal Müller denies here that the teaching of the Church on marriage has been altered in any way by the pope’s recent post-synodal exhortation. He thus puts himself in opposition to many well-respected cardinals and bishops who have indeed seen serious problems in Amoris Laetitia. Müller’s own position also seems to bypass the fact that Amoris Laetitia has now already encouraged several episcopal statements that are marked by a certain permissiveness and more open-ended moral laxity – such as in Rome, in Argentine, and in Germany.
On 16 December 2016, and in a similarly optimistic way, Cardinal Müller recently gave yet another interview to the German regional newspaper Passauer Neue Presse in which he had said that Amoris Laetitia merely dealt with the very particular problem of those “remarried” couples who are convinced – but cannot prove it in Ecclesial courts – that a previously vowed or contracted marriage had been invalid from its very inception. Here is the crucial question posed in that interview, and then Müller’s own response:
Q. Pope Francis has made it clear that the question of Holy Communion for remarried divorcees has to be decided case by case. What is valid here: the meaning of the Pope’s word or the contrary tradition of his predecessors?
Cardinal Müller: There is no exception to the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage. The individual case referred to here relates to the question whether or not all natural conditions (especially the desire to marry) and the right understanding of marriage were given in Faith at the moment of contracting the marriage. In the normal case, an orderly church procedure (marriage process) clarifies whether or not a marriage is valid. In this context, the Pope refers to the “individual cases” in situations in which no clarity can be achieved by the Church, but where a single person, in his conscience, and after careful consultation with his confessor, honestly comes to the conviction of the invalidity of his first marriage. The confessor needs a profound spiritual discernment on the basis of ecclesiastical teaching on marriage. He can not simply suspend the indissolubility of a marriage at his own discretion and judgment and thus ignore the word of God. According to this situation, therefore, general guidelines would be here a contradiction in itself. This is also written in the papal document [Amoris Laetitia]. There is no door opened to a kind of “Catholic divorce,” which is secretly conceived and embarrassedly cloaked with pious words. [my emphasis]
This very interview has caused much discussion among attentive and earnest Catholics, mainly because of Cardinal Müller’s unexpected reference to the “Forum Internum” which had and has been much contested during and after the two Family Synods.
Close research into this matter has further shown to us the following aspects. First of all, there is a doctrinal text published in 1994 by the Vatican (notably promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith itself) which explicitly rejects this idea and application of a Forum Internum. Here are some important and pertinent quotes in this context:
In recent years, in various regions, different pastoral solutions in this area have been suggested according to which, to be sure, a general admission of divorced and remarried to Eucharistic communion would not be possible, but the divorced and remarried members of the faithful could approach Holy Communion in specific cases when they consider themselves authorized according to a judgment of conscience to do so. This would be the case, for example, when they had been abandoned completely unjustly, although they sincerely tried to save the previous marriage, or when they are convinced of the nullity of their previous marriage, although unable to demonstrate it in the external forum or when they have gone through a long period of reflection and penance, or also when for morally valid reasons they cannot satisfy the obligation to separate. In some places, it has also been proposed that in order objectively to examine their actual situation, the divorced and remarried would have to consult a prudent and expert priest. This priest, however, would have to respect their possible decision to approach Holy Communion, without this implying an official authorization. In these and similar cases it would be a matter of a tolerant and benevolent pastoral solution in order to do justice to the different situations of the divorced and remarried. Even if analogous pastoral solutions have been proposed by a few Fathers of the Church and in some measure were practiced, nevertheless these never attained the consensus of the Fathers and in no way came to constitute the common doctrine of the Church nor to determine her discipline. [….] In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, Sept. 14, 1994, nn. 3-4). [my emphasis]
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 (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 55), 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 (cf.Code of Canon Law, can. 1085 § 2). Marriage, in fact, because it is both the image of the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church as well as the fundamental core and an important factor in the life of civil society, is essentially a public reality.… Thus the judgment of conscience of one’s own marital situation does not regard only the immediate relationship between man and God, as if one could prescind from the Church’s mediation, that also includes canonical laws binding in conscience. Not to recognize this essential aspect would mean in fact to deny that marriage is a reality of the Church, that is to say, a sacrament. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful, Sept. 14, 1994, nn. 7-8). [my emphasis]
The Canon lawyer Edward Peters himself has written on this matter and also shows the limits of such resorts to a Forum Internum:
“A few examples of the exercise of power [in the internal forum are]: dispensation of certain occult impediments to marriage in special circumstances; [canonically] secret marriage; remission of reserved censures in certain cases.” Hill, in CLSA Comm (1985) 93-94; see likewise Viana, in Exeg. Comm (2004) I: 825. None of these classic examples of internal forum concerns looks to the reception of holy Communion by those remaining in irregular marriages; moreover, all require documentable intervention by ecclesiastical authority for their effectiveness; personal action on the part of the individuals concerned does not suffice.
For this current article, I have also consulted with many knowledgeable and well-formed persons: theologians, canon lawyers, prelates and priests. Several sources – whom I respect very much – were troubled by Cardinal Müller’s statement and have indicated that this Forum Internum idea is in itself problematic (one source said: “There is an old legal maxim: Nemo iudex in causa sui (“Nobody can be the judge in his own case”). The Church has never permitted individual Catholics – or a priest who hears only that one Catholic’s side of the story in the confessional – to decide that his/her own marriage was [from its inception] null and void.”)
However, several other very respected sources have said that Cardinal Müller himself did not commit an error in his interview with the German newspaper, inasmuch as he himself did not deny the indissolubility of marriage, did not explicitly mention Holy Communion for the “remarried” (even though the question itself indicated it); and also since the Church herself has already practiced a kind of Forum Internum for those very few exceptions where there was, indeed, for example, fraud involved; and thus the person himself cannot prove in an ecclesial court that the first marriage was a deception and thus invalid. (I myself, however, still wonder how this will transpire practically, in the face of the fact that most priests today tend toward a more lenient and laxer approach toward the multiple cases of “irregular” marriages; thus this promotion of such applied ideas about the especially protected Internal Forum might further confuse us all, rather than help us!)
However, what especially troubles many thoughtful observers in this matter is the following: Why is Cardinal Müller speaking here about such abstract and rare cases – and he even claims implicitly that that is, after all, what Pope Francis was really thinking of in Amoris Laetitia – when, indeed, the whole Catholic world is now in deep and demoralizing confusion; and when the first episcopal statements are now more permissively and openly allowing Communion for the “remarried”?
Is Cardinal Müller sufficiently helping us here in our trenchant distress, and is he likewise helping us to clarify and resist the permeating confusion? Or do we now also need a new set of clarifications from Cardinal Müller himself, as well as from the pope?