Clergy in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, have asked USCCB officials to delay a consultative vote on the prospect of merging their diocese into the neighboring Diocese of Columbus.
The vote - scheduled for a Nov. 14-17 meeting of U.S. bishops - would come before laity and clergy in Steubenville have been adequately consulted on a plan that would significantly impact their spiritual lives, according to an Oct. 28 letter signed by 18 priests and deacons of the Steubenville diocese.
“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.
The letter was also sent to the chairmen of three USCCB committees — Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Canonical Affairs and Church Governance; Bishop James Checchio of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations; and Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Evangelization and Catechesis.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, was copied on the text.
The letter came nearly three weeks after Steubenville’s Bishop Jeff Monforton announced to priests and diocesan staff that a process was underway to see the Steubenville diocese absorbed into the Diocese of Columbus.
Monforton told The Pillar 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.”
“Why did Bishop Monforton not utilize the synodal process we just completed to seek input from the clergy and laity about a decision of such great consequences? The process we are undergoing presents not a listening Church, but rather a Church wholly deaf to the needs and concerns of both her clergy and lay faithful,” the letter added.
The signatories - priests and deacons of the Steubenville diocese - noted that after Monforton announced the merger process, the bishop “offered an extremely restrictive survey in which people have less than two weeks to complete and return it, as the vote by the conference will take place approximately a week later.”
In fact, the diocesan survey has recently been taken offline.
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The letter also referenced a study published this month by The Catholic University of America, which found that fewer than half of U.S. diocesan priests say they are confident in the leadership of their diocesan bishop.
“It is processes such as the one clergy and laity of the Diocese of Steubenville are currently undergoing that have led to this fractured relationship between bishop and priest,” the Steubenville clerics wrote.
“Your Excellencies, we ask for your intervention so that in place of what has happened up to this point, a deeper layer of listening and authentic dialogue between shepherd and flock may occur in the Diocese of Steubenville,” they added.
Monforton told The Pillar earlier this month that the merger is a “reality,” and the “writing’s on the wall” for the outcome of the process.
But there is not yet a formal decision on the prospect of merging dioceses.
The bishops of Ohio voted last year in support of the plan, and the U.S. bishops’ conference is scheduled for a consultative vote on the issue this month. But the final decision rests with the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and ultimately with Pope Francis.
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.”
It is not clear whether any of Ohio’s bishops have reconsidered their position on the merger. One Ohio bishop reportedly urged the Steubenville priests to “pray and trust in the Holy Spirit” during the process of the merger, but did not indicate any waver in his support for the proposal.
Archbishop Gomez has not yet responded to a request for comment on the Oct. 28 letter from the Steubenville priests.
But priests in Steubenville say they hope the bishops’ conference will take seriously the importance of consultation ahead of major decisions.
One priest in the Steubenville diocese told The Pillar that while he was not opposed to the merger itself, “the process has been totally disruptive and crazy. It’s been terrible.”
“I’ve watched pastors close parishes. And it’s a very painful thing for people, so you have to walk people through the process, and be a pastor to them. And I think that should have been what happened in the diocese. But we priests have never been able to talk with the bishop about any of the things this diocese needs, do any serious long-term planning, or be listened to about things like that, and then - all of the sudden - it’s just time to close the diocese?”
While Monforton told The Pillar that he wants Steubenville’s process to be a “template” for other prospective diocesan mergers, pastors in his own diocese have pushed back.
“This is absolutely not the template to use. Where is the pastoral sensitivity in any of this?” one priest asked.
“All of these years we’ve been refused to talk about these situations, and then all of a sudden, now, it’s like this has to be done.”
Several priests have told The Pillar they believe Monforton’s leadership - during a major embezzlement scandal involving criminal prosecutions for senior diocesan officials - has made the diocesan financial condition appear worse than it actually is.
Those priests say that new leadership would be enough to see vitality in the Steubenville diocese.
Among potential paths for the Steubenville diocese is a papal decision to appoint Columbus’ Bishop Earl Fernandes a temporary leader of the Steubenville diocese, without a formal merger.
Some Steubenville priests say that plan would be better than a merger, while others say it would only delay the inevitable.
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.
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Public reaction to the merger plan has 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."
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.”