July 25, 2002 News » Cover Story

Our Fathers 

In Colorado Springs, married and former priests outnumber active Catholic clergymen

Editor's Note: This week's coverage of local and national reform efforts within the Catholic Church is part of a national project, in which more than 30 alternative weeklies nationwide have participated. Visit AlterNet.org to read other stories from around the country about married priests and the Catholic Church reform movement: www.alternet.org/?IssueAreaID=35

Nearly 30 years after he married Nancy, Jim Schumacher still considers himself a Catholic priest.

With his wife, a former Sister of St. Joseph's of Carondelet, Schumacher, 72, continues to practice what he preaches. The Schumachers are active in their parish, Sacred Heart on the city's West Side. They teach a baptism class and counsel young people as they are preparing for marriage.

For a number of years, Schumacher taught religious studies courses at Regis University and Pikes Peak Community College. He heads a bible study. He works with several national groups who are agitating for Church reform.

But, because of the Vatican's mandate that Catholic priests -- at least in the West -- cannot marry, this priest is prohibited from overseeing a parish of devoted worshippers.

"Catholics have been brainwashed that priests get married because they don't have the vocation, and that is not true," Schumacher said. "God calls them to marry. Just as truly as priesthood is a vocation; so is marriage and so is single life."

In 1954, Schumacher was ordained to serve the diocese of Fargo, N.D. Twenty years later, he found himself at what must have been an agonizing junction.

"I was attempting to discern what God wanted me to do, and I experienced a vocation to marry as clear a vocation as the vocation that I had previously experienced to become a priest," he said.

Schumacher has never understood why his equal callings could not be reconciled. When he married his wife in 1974, he even wrote a letter to the Pope, asking that he be allowed to continue his priesthood. "But I wasn't so nave that I felt it would be granted," he said.

Schumacher's is just one of 40 separate, yet shared, stories belonging to the former and married priests living in Colorado Springs. Locally, their numbers exceed the population of 30 ordained priests who are currently ministering within the local diocese. Seventy miles north of us, another 500 married and former priests live in the Denver metro area.

The conscience of Colorado Springs

In Colorado Springs, many of those former priests meet informally as a group once or twice a year -- with Bishop Richard Hanifen, who leads the local diocese -- to shoot the breeze and catch up, said Steve Handen, who left the priesthood in 1973. Many of them work tirelessly as community activists, some with the local Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission.

Bill Sulzman, a former priest, has been arrested on numerous occasions for agitating against nuclear weapons and America's defense buildup. He was arrested most recently on May 29 at the Air Force Academy while protesting the policies of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was speaking at the Academy's graduation ceremony.

Two years ago, in a highly publicized protest, Sulzman, along with Father Carl Kabat, was arrested as they peacefully assembled at the Minuteman Missile Silo site in Weld County, Colo.

An original member of the Plowshare Movement, Kabat has spent more time in jail than any other American for his anti-nuke protesting. When he was arrested at the missile silo site, he was dressed in his trademark clown outfit, sending the message that "we are all fools for God."

Handen, meanwhile, has carved a niche working with the down and out in Colorado Springs. When he first entered the seminary in the turbulent early 1960s, Handen was among a generation that wanted to help change the world.

"There was a very high energy level; the atmosphere was charged with hopefulness," he said. "Our hope was, if we could just fine-tune world peace and racial justice and eliminate poverty, and the Church would make everyone holy."

But as a priest, he found the Church resistant to change. After eight years, amid tension, Handen resigned. Three years later, he married Mary Lynn Sheetz and that was clearly the end of any future as a priest. Yet when he married, Handen continued worshipping in the parish he had once led -- Our Lady of Guadeloupe -- and found his friends so accepting that some still call him Father. "I felt absolutely no rejection," he said. In some ways, with the tension of his role as an official representative dissipated, Handen's relationship with the Church has improved.

Since then, Handen and Sheetz have raised more than 14 children, most of whom came from Central America. Handen helped start the Marian House Soup Kitchen in the 1970s, and helped run the Bijou House, a hospitality house for homeless people, for 30 years. He continues his work with homeless, on a smaller scale, and has been self-supporting, in part to enable him to speak freely and critically about the politicization of homelessness and other issues close to his heart.

"We've had an activist component with working with the homeless," he said. "We're not just cooking soup every day but also asking, 'Why do we have to cook the soup?' "

Schumaker terms Handen "the conscience of Colorado Springs."

Handen laughs when asked if he still feels like a priest.

"Priests got a tremendous amount of respect. At dinner they always got the biggest piece of the pie. Now I have to cook the dinner and wash the dishes."

Contaminated by marriage

Recent polls of Catholics nationwide indicate fully 80 percent support the notion of married priests; close to 70 percent endorse ordaining women into the priesthood.

Church leaders point out that popular opinion should not, and cannot, dictate Catholic doctrine. However, many, including Schumacher, point out disparities within the policies themselves.

Until about 850 years ago, married -- as well as celibate -- priests were fully consecrated. Indeed, Schumacher points out, the first 16 popes were all married. Several of the 12 Apostles certainly were married, including Peter, whose mother-in-law is referenced in scripture.

"One of the things that bothers me the most as a married priest is that somehow we are contaminated by being married," Schumacher said. "And what does that say about women in the church?"

Another rarely discussed reality is that the Vatican already allows ordained married priests -- but only in the Eastern Rites branches of the Catholic Church. In other words, while Rome is still in union with and supports married priests -- mostly in Middle and Far East countries -- their Western counterparts are required to take a vow of celibacy. So why the disparity?

"I can't give you a good answer for that, because there isn't any," Schumacher said. "I can't see why they impose mandatory celibacy in the West, but not the East.

"There can't be any real reason, other than that's how they've always done it."

In addition, the Church has received many married Episcopalian priests in the United States, who are currently functioning as ordained Catholic priests.

Devoting their lives

Father Donald Dunn, of St. Mary's Parish in downtown Colorado Springs, acknowledges that, at nine centuries old, the discipline of requiring priests to be celibate is a relatively new occurrence -- by history's standards.

"[The Vatican] believes the discipline serves the Church well, to limit the priesthood to men gives them an opportunity to devote their entire lives to the ministry," he explained.

However, Dunn, like many other practicing priests, hopes that, fueled by the groundswell of support, the discussion will broaden. Several of Dunn's own family members have left the priesthood to get married.

"I grieve about that, that marrieds can't be priests," he said.

Dunn isn't hopeful about the discussion broadening any time soon to include the notion of women being ordained.

"In my ideal world, the possibility [of ordaining women] should exist, but we've been told by the top that this is not even an item for discussion," he said. "Many people find that a very difficult place to be -- to not be able to discuss it."

The Pope's rationale for refusing women the priesthood has been two-fold: First, it has simply never happened and, second, if Christ intended for women to be priests, they would have been represented among his 12 Apostles. Past papal explanations have also included the claim that women can't be ordained because they are not cast in the likeness of Jesus; i.e., they do not have penises.

However, Schumacher maintains that nothing in scripture precludes women from serving as priests. In addition, documentation indicates that women certainly served Jesus in apostolic roles, and, Schumacher points out, there is evidence of at least one woman -- Theodora -- who was a bishop long ago in Greece.

Much of the Church's documentation of its history, however, is kept by the Vatican, Schumacher says, which continues its stance that women and married men don't belong in the priesthood.

Still, he hasn't lost faith that the Church will evolve. "Realistically, it's not going to happen with this pope [John Paul]," Schumacher said. "With another papacy, we might see some changes."


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