How null is this marriage? Let me count the ways.
A few days ago, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City learned that one of his priests, Fr. Dan Letourneau, had entered civil marriage with a woman late last year. The secular press, most of whom know little about faith or religion beyond what they’ve read in the newspapers, refer to Fr. Letourneau as “married” and as having “a wife”. Catholics must read things more precisely. Letourneau’s “marriage” is null in at least two ways—and, since only one way is needed to make a marriage completely null, then, this one is null.
First, and most importantly, Letourneau’s ordination (to diaconate, by the way) rendered him incapable of marrying (c. 1087)—unless expressly dispensed for marriage by the Holy See (c. 1078 § 1, 1° and c. 1079) which, of course, never happened. There is no need to inquire further: Letourneau’s civil status is married but, in the eyes of the Church, he is not married at all. He seems to be, in fact, in a criminous state (c. 1394 § 1) for having attempted even a civil marriage.
Second, Letourneau’s “marriage” is null for its having been attempted in violation of “canonical form” (c. 1008). I take the occasion to remind readers of my preference to see canonical form removed from the books but, unless and until that day comes, the canon law is crystal clear and it results in Letourneau’s already-null “marriage” being even … nuller. If that’s a word.
Finally, I know nothing of Letourneau’s civil wife, but more grounds for nullity might yet be found there. If, say, she had been previously married and divorced, that would make her attempt at marriage null for ligamen (previous bond, c. 1085) or, if she were not baptized, that would render an attempted marriage null for undispensed disparity of cult (c. 1086).
But, as I said above, only one ground of nullity need be present to render a “marriage” completely null, and here, we have at least two grounds. Letourneau and wife are civilly married, of course; that lets them enjoy the benefits of civil marriage, e.g., filing a joint tax return. What good that might be at the Pearly Gates is not clear to me.