The Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, became the center of controversy last year, when Bishop Jeff Monforton announced to his priests in October that the diocese would be merged with the neighboring Diocese of Columbus,
Priests of the diocese pushed back on the plan, arguing that they had not been consulted, and eventually a planned USCCB vote on the prospective merger was scrapped.
But the possibility that Steubenville will be merged into Columbus is still a live one, and the diocese is now facing an audit meant to gauge its financial viability.
Some of Steubenville’s diocesan challenges are specific to its recent financial history. During the summer of 2020, both former diocesan comptroller David Franklin and former diocesan vicar general Monsignor Kurt Kemo admitted in court that they had embezzled large sums from the financially struggling diocese.
But Steubenville is a small diocese with a declining population, and limited resources. It faces demographic and financial challenges that a number of small dioceses in the Midwest and Northeast will face in coming decades.
Some priests of the Steubenville diocese have urged that the diocese could have a positive future — they point to its vocations numbers, and the prospect of both stabilized finances and growth by a renewed focus on evangelization. But other analysts have argued that even with those positive points, the diocese is just too small to remain sustainable.
If that’s true, it raises questions about other U.S. dioceses.
Steubenville is not the smallest diocese in the country. If a merger is going to happen there, what other U.S. dioceses might be candidates for the same future? And where does Steubenville stand among them?
The Pillar looks at the numbers.
Dioceses great and small
Since the early Church, the Catholic diocese has been the local geographical expression of the Church’s nature as a hierarchical and sacramental communion.
A diocese has set geographical boundaries that usually align with civil governmental boundaries. In the U.S., most diocesan boundaries follow the borders of counties and states.
The Holy See has generally tried to see that the geographic territory of a diocese is not so large that a bishop can’t effectively govern the entirety, or travel to all parts within reasonable amounts of time. But the Vatican has also been attentive to population: When the Catholic population of a region grows, dioceses need sometimes to split, if they become just too populous to be governed by a single bishop.
In fact, the Diocese of Steubenville is the product of one such split — it was carved from the Diocese of Columbus in 1944. When those dioceses were split, both local churches were of relatively similar size, and both were growing.
In 1950, the Steubenville diocese contained 62,000 Catholics, while the Columbus diocese contained 106,000.
But since that time, the Diocese of Columbus has grown to almost 300,000 Catholics while the Diocese of Steubenville has shrunk to 30,000.
Of course, the Holy See does not apply consistent standards around the globe about the “right” size of dioceses, either in terms of Catholic population or geographic area. And mergers and splits are often initiated by local bishops, who sense that particular situations have become unmanageable.
Around the world, there is wide variability in terms of the Catholic population of dioceses.
Mexico has the largest average number of Catholics per diocese. With 115 million Catholics served by 98 dioceses in 2019, Mexico has an average of 1.2 million Catholics per diocese, according to the 2019 version of the Vatican-published Annuarium statisticum ecclesia.
On average, Algeria has the smallest Catholic population per diocese, according to the Vatican’s numbers.
When it was a French colony, Algeria had a Catholic population near 1 million, but the country now has some 8,000 Catholics, according to the Vatican’s statistical yearbook.
Despite that number, Algeria still has four dioceses, giving it an average of 2,000 Catholics per diocese. As it happens, two of Algeria’s dioceses are administered by the same bishop.
The United States, with 67 million Catholics and 175 geographic dioceses in the Latin Catholic Church, has a fairly average Catholic population per diocese for the developed world: 383,000 Catholics per diocese. That puts the U.S. between Italy (256,000 Catholics per diocese) and France (454,000).
The U.S. ranks third behind Brazil, with 268 dioceses, and Italy, with 225 dioceses, in its total number of dioceses.
But there is considerable variation in the size of American dioceses. There are 53 Latin Catholic dioceses in the U.S. with fewer than 100,000 Catholics, and 20 with more than 1 million Catholics.
Steubenville is the fourth-smallest U.S. Latin diocese by population. And like many of the country’s smallest dioceses, its Catholic population is falling rather than rising.
Small and getting smaller
The Steubenville diocese is not alone as a small diocese with a shrinking number of Catholics. U.S. dioceses are caught up in an overall demographic shift in the U.S. population towards the South and West.
The Catholic population of most dioceses in the Midwest and Northeast has shrunk over the last 30 years, while many of those in the South and West have grown.
Some of the shrinking dioceses are also geographically small, while many Southern and Western dioceses are quite large geographically, as many were founded when their Catholic populations were quite small.
For instance, when Atlanta was made an archdiocese in 1962, it had a Catholic population of just over 30,000, despite covering half the state of Georgia. At that time, the Diocese of Steubenville had significantly more Catholics than the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
But with the migration of the U.S. population to the South, Atlanta now boasts 1.2 million Catholics, and is one of the fastest growing dioceses in the country.
By comparison Steubenville, with one-third the geographical area and one-fortieth the number of Catholics, is facing the prospect of diocesan consolidation.
Of course, its declining Catholic population is not an indicator of poor pastoral care in the Steubevnille diocese. Instead, it is the result of large population movements within the U.S.
Two major trends can be seen in recent population changes within the U.S.: People have increasingly moved to the South and West, and in all states, population has increasingly shifted from rural areas and small cities to major metropolitan areas.
U.S. Census data offers insight into county-level population change over the last 10 years. The data shows that there are more growing counties in the South and West than other regions, and that within each state, the population of counties around metropolitan areas are growing, while rural counties are shrinking.
Steubenville is a small city whose growth had once been fueled by the steel industry, but is now among the regions of Ohio with a shrinking population.
Columbus, home to the state government and the third-largest university in the nation - The Ohio State University - is the fastest growing region of Ohio.
Consolidation, by the numbers
Like the total population of its geographic area, the Catholic population of the Steubenville diocese has also shrunk considerably over the last three decades.
And among dioceses with a small Catholic population, the Steubenville diocese covers the smallest geographic territory.
This map highlights in red the dioceses with fewer than 40,000 Catholics. By mousing over each diocese, you can read key statistics about its size and rate of growth, according to data from the 2020 edition of the Official Catholic Directory.
The smallest U.S. diocese in terms of population is Fairbanks, Alaska, with 11,570 Catholics as of 2021. Its small population could eventually make Fairbanks a candidate for consolidation with the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau.
In fact, the Anchorage-Juneau archdiocese is itself the product of a merger: In 2020, the Archdiocese of Anchorage and the Diocese of Juneau were consolidated.
When those dioceses merged, Juneau had a population of 10,000 Catholics, while Anchorage had 44,723.
Unlike the Steubenville diocese, both Fairbanks and Anchorage-Juneau are very large geographically. Although its population is low, the diocese of Fairbanks covers 409,849 square miles of territory, by far the largest in the country. If it were combined with Anchorage-Juneau, the massive combined diocese would include all 663,267 square miles of the state of Alaska.
As bishops consider the viability of dioceses with small Catholic populations, the offsetting challenge of governing a large geographic area likely looms large in their considerations.
After Fairbanks, the next smallest diocese in terms of Catholic population is Rapid City, which comprises the western half of South Dakota.
At almost 42,000 square miles, Rapid City is a geographically large diocese. If it were recombined with the Diocese of Sioux Falls, from which it was split in 1902, the combined diocese would be 77,000 square miles — the whole of South Dakota.
But even if South Dakota’s dioceses were merged, the combined Catholic population of the new diocese would be less than half that of an average American diocese.
The other diocese with a lower Catholic population than Steubenville is Baker, Oregon, whose 68,000 thousand square miles takes up the eastern two-thirds of the state.
The Archdiocese of Portland, which covers the coastal third of Oregon, is a growing local Church, with more than 400,000 Catholics.
Could Baker be eventually merged? It’s possible.
But given the cultural divide between the eastern and western halves of Oregon, the Catholics of the Baker diocese might not especially appreciate being appended to the Portland archdiocese, with 20 times the number of Catholics on the other side of the Coastal Range.
From a cultural and geographical point of view, the Diocese of Boise might be a better fit if Baker were to be merged. Indeed, Boise and Baker are both suffragan sees of the Portland archdiocese. But a merger across state lines would break the custom of following civil borders as much as possible, with few U.S. dioceses running over state lines.
In Baker, Rapid City, and Fairbanks - and other places with similar demographic trajectory - decisions will likely need to be made soon on how to balance the problem of geographically large dioceses with the challenge of small and shrinking Catholic populations.
And, of course, compounding those problems is the challenge posed by America’s rapidly retiring presbyterate.
The data suggests it’s likely that the trends of the last 60 years will continue in the decades ahead, leaving dioceses in the South and West to make decisions about whether to split, or to manage larger and larger diocesan populations. The same trends will leave dioceses in the Midwest to contemplate consolidation.
None of those decisions will be easy.
To make them successfully, the Church in the U.S. may need to think seriously about how a diocese is meant to lead the life of local Catholics, and how its approaches might adjust to the contours of a changing world.
Editor's note: Church statistical data in all graphics is derived from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate's 2020 compilation of diocesan data from the Official Catholic Directory, reflecting 2019 numbers reported by dioceses to the OCD.