November 28, 2022

NEW YORK — Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of Steubenville has requested that the U.S. bishops’ conference table vote on merging his diocese with the neighboring Diocese of Columbus at next week’s fall session after hearing feedback of “disappointment” and “fear” at the potential change had received.

Monforton announced the request in a Nov. 7 letter to clergy and religious in the diocese. It comes about a month after he announced that the merger process has been initiated and is well underway.

“Since the October 10 announcement of a proposed merger between the Diocese of Steubenville and the Diocese of Columbus, many have expressed their counsel, including disappointment and even fear,” Monforton said in the letter, which was obtained by core. “The results of the most recent poll provide further evidence of a schism in the future vision for church ministry in the Ohio Valley.”

“As such, I have asked the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference to remove the discussion of a merger and subsequent vote from the plenary session agenda at this time,” continued Monforton, who has served as the diocese of Eastern Ohio since 2012. “There will be no vote next week.”

He added that further discussions about the future of the diocese would take place at the diocesan level.

Monforton tells core last month that the probe into a merger began about a year and a half ago after the Holy See expressed concern about declining numbers. The Diocese of Steubenville has fewer than 40,000 Catholics in 13 counties in southeastern Ohio.

From there, the Bishops of Ohio met about a year ago and voted unanimously that merger was the best way forward. Last month, Monforton said the immediate next step is the diocesan-wide survey, the results of which he was scheduled to present at next week’s USCCB fall meeting before the change in plans.

According to the diocese, 3,200 polls — about 11 percent of Catholics in the diocese — were filed, with about 60 percent of those polled saying they did not support a merger. A number of respondents to the poll also expressed hope that a diocese merger “would provide the support and resources needed,” although that percentage was not shared.

The biggest concerns of survey participants, the diocese said, were:

  • How a merger would affect the priests of the diocese and the desire to see that they are cared for.
  • If a merger would lead to the closure of parishes.
  • How a large urban city—in Columbus terms—would relate to the smaller, more rural counties in the Diocese of Steubenville. In particular, the question “would be forgotten”.
  • And a general concern about how a merger would affect the diocese’s Catholic schools.

The Diocese of Columbus serves approximately 275,000 people in more than 20 districts in central and southern Ohio.

Monforton’s desire for a merger is based largely on statistics about the priests in the diocese and the sustainability of a diocese where parishioner numbers continue to decline.

For priests, Monforton looks at their age. The diocese has 23 priests aged over 50 and 13 aged 49 and under. With the number of parishioners, Monforton said the diocese would fall below 25,000 Catholics in 10 years. He argued that the advantage of a merger is resources.

“More resources. More staff. It can handle the effects of the economic downturn much better than we can,” the bishop said core Last month. “We basically live with rubbing two nickels together. Our free funds are extremely low. Columbus itself can provide more resources to the Diocese of Steubenville with more people.”

Now that the process has returned to the diocesan level, it is unclear what the immediate next steps will be or the timeline for a final decision on a merger. Monforton stressed last month that while the process is ongoing, it is not a done deal.

Diocesan mergers are rare. The most recent U.S. Diocese merger occurred in 2020 when the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska merged with the Archdiocese of Anchorage to form the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. The last merger before that was in 1956 when the dioceses of Kansas City and Saint Joseph merged to form the Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Follow John Lavanburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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