The U.S. bishops’ conference will not vote next week on the prospect of merging the Steubenville, Ohio, diocese with its neighboring Diocese of Columbus, according to a letter sent Monday by Steubenville’s Bishop Jeff Monforton.
The announcement comes after nearly a month of pushback from Steubenville priests and laity on a plan that would have seen their diocese face an “extinctive merger,” and be absorbed into its larger Ohio neighbor.
“I have requested the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to remove discussion of a merger and subsequent vote from the plenary session’s agenda at this time. There will be no vote next week,” Monforton wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to Steubenville's priests, which was obtained by The Pillar.
“Further discussion regarding the Diocese of Steubenville’s future will be conducted at the diocesan level,” the bishop added.
Monforton noted that since an Oct. 10 meeting of priests at which he announced the plan, “many have voiced their counsel, including disappointment and even fear. The results from the recent survey provide further evidence of a division in the future vision for the Church’s service in the Ohio Valley.”
The scheduled USCCB vote was a consultative measure, meant to give Vatican officials and the pope a sense of the U.S. bishops' views on the prospect of merging the diocese.
The vote's cancellation comes after The Pillar reported last week that 18 priests and deacons of the Steubenville diocese had written to USCCB leaders Oct. 28, asking that the vote be delayed.
Diocesan clergy had complained that Monforton had done no consultation with them before beginning to plan the merger process, and before announcing that the merger was a certainty - even while it had not yet received approval from Pope Francis.
But the Steubenville clergy had urged last month that measure was premature.
“We ask Your Excellencies and your brothers in the episcopate to delay the November vote on the proposed merger so that we and our laity may participate in this process that so directly greatly impacts our relationship with the Church and each other,” the clerics wrote, in a letter sent to Archbishop Jose Gomez, USCCB president.
Monforton told The Pillar last month that while the bishops of Ohio supported that plan, and that he had been speaking with Vatican officials about the idea for more than a year, he had not directly consulted with Steubenville’s priests about the proposed merger.
Instead, the bishop said that conversations with “some advisors - local entrepreneurs and business people,” had “governed my decision” on the need to merge the Steubenville diocese with its neighbor.
Signatories to the Oct. 28 letter said Monforton should have done more consulting, and that the U.S. bishops’ conference should see that take place before any decisions are made.
The letter said the clerics had “serious procedural concerns about the process that has been undertaken,” in the Steubenville diocese.
“Although the proposed merger has been under consideration for well over a year, Bishop Jeffrey Monforton undertook no consultation with the clergy or lay faithful of the diocese; a decision was simply announced to us.”
While Monforton's Nov. 7 letter mentioned an online survey of local Catholics - published for responses only after the Oct. 10 meeting - the results of that survey have not been published.
But Monforton told The Pillar last month that despite the survey, the merger was a “reality,” and the “writing’s on the wall” for the outcome of the process.
When Monforton announced the prospective merger to Steubenville’s priests, the bishop lamented a shrinking Catholic population, now around 29,000 Catholics, an aging presbyterate, and the economic prospects for an Appalachian region mired in unemployment and poverty.
While he recognized that the Steubenville diocese has one of the highest Mass attendance rates in the U.S, the bishop told priests that he was concerned about the future of the diocese.
“Right now, we are solvent, thank the Lord,” Monforton explained at an Oct. 10 meeting.
But “our ability to evangelize has been compromised, and that will continue. The diocese is victim to the Ohio Valley’s aging cycle and steady demographic depopulation,” he said.
“The question is, how sustainable is this diocese in the next five to 10 years?” Monforton asked, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Pillar.
While Monforton has insisted that the Steubenville diocese is not financially sustainable, a group of Steubenville priests have pushed back on that idea since the merger was announced.
Fourteen active priests - out of 36 in the diocese - signed an Oct. 18 letter to the five other diocesan bishops of Ohio, asking them to reexamine the numbers, and reconsider their support for the plan. Two retired priests and two permanent deacons also signed the Oct. 18 letter.
The Oct. 18 signatories argued that the Diocese of Steubenville has significantly more priests per capita than any other diocese in Ohio — there are 372 Catholics per priest in the diocese, the letter claimed, while there are more than 1,000 Catholics per priest in each of Ohio’s other dioceses.
The clerics added that the Diocese of Steubenville has a higher share of Catholics attending Mass than other Ohio dioceses, had more participation in the global synod on synodality, and had both a stable population and continued prospects for priestly vocations.
The letter argued that the diocese “is ripe for the harvest” of evangelization.
“This is mission territory that cries out for the spreading of the Catholic Faith. In one sense, we as missionary disciples of Christ could be in no better place!” the clerics argued.
The Oct. 18 letter also argued that financial condition of the diocese is more stable than Monforton has suggested, and that an outside read of the numbers would indicate that.
“There are concrete actions that can be taken that will allow the Diocese of Steubenville to stabilize and continue the mission,” the Oct. 18 letter said.
It called for “complete, authentic transparency with regard to the diocese’s financial status,” “serious, attentive pastoral planning that will allow the numbers of parishes and priests to be stable and serve the needs of the people,” and “continued costs cutting and improving effectiveness at the chancery level.”
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Monforton himself is facing several issues in the Steubenville diocese.
The Pillar has reported that the bishop is subject to two separate Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigations for his handling of sexual abuse allegations.
Monforton is also facing criticism in Steubenville for a third case, in which a priest impregnated a teenager after diocesan officials were warned about his inappropriate behavior toward her.
The Pillar confirmed that while diocesan officials said that priest - Henry Foxhoven - began counseling during a brief 2017 suspension, he actually had one counseling session in September 2018, the month before he was arrested on sexual assault charges.
Monforton has not yet announced a plan for eventual diocesan consultations on the prospect of a merger.
Before the bishop's letter, public reaction to the merger plan had been mixed. While Steubenville city officials and local Catholics, including well-known theologian Scott Hahn, have attended prayer vigils outside the diocesan chancery, one Catholic newspaper published an editorial saying "Monforton should be recognized for leading his people to face the emerging picture of the landscape of American Catholic life in his diocese with courage."
Senior Church sources told The Pillar that members of Steubenville's diocesan finance council had also recently raised concerns to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and other officials that they had not been consulted by Monforton about the plan to merge the diocese, and that Monforton had cancelled meetings and declined conversations with finance council members in the wake of his announcement.
For their part, the signers of the Oct. 28 letter to Gomez called for a process of “dialogue and discernment” before any decisions are made about their diocese.
“An extended process that invites and welcomes widespread participation would allow for examination and discussion of complete, full, and accurate information, and would certainly enhance the legitimacy of any possible outcome.”
“Moreover, because the decision will be made by the Supreme Pontiff, it is obviously an irrevocable decision not subject to recourse, thus requiring that the process leading to the decision be as just and thorough as possible,” the clerics wrote.
“This proposed merger has been offered as a ‘template’ for future diocesan mergers. Is what we are experiencing an expression of the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council? Should this be a ‘template’ for the future? We do not think so.”
Chieko Noguchi, a spokesperson for the the U.S. bishops’ conference, told The Pillar Monday that she could not discuss questions pertaining to schedule for the bishops' closed-door executive sessions.
“If something is on the agenda or for discussion for the bishops during executive session, it is not something I am able to discuss,” Noguchi told The Pillar.
This story is developing and will be updated.