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NEW YORK – Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of Steubenville has requested that the U.S. bishops’ conference table a vote on merging his diocese with neighboring Diocese of Columbus at next week’s fall meeting after receiving feedback of “disappointment” and “fear” over the potential change.
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 process of a merger was initiated and well underway.
“Since the October 10th announcement of a proposed merger between the Diocese of Steubenville and the Diocese of Columbus, many have voiced their counsel, including disappointment and even fear,” Monforton said in the letter, obtained by Crux. “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.”
“Therefore, 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,” Monforton, who’s led the eastern Ohio diocese since 2012, continued. “There will be no vote next week.”
He added that further discussion regarding the diocese’s future will take place at the diocesan level.
Monforton told Crux last month that the exploration of a merger began about a year and a half ago after the Holy See expressed concern over declining numbers. The Diocese of Steubenville is home to fewer than 40,000 Catholics across 13 southeastern Ohio counties.
From there, about a year ago, the Ohio bishops met and unanimously voted that the merger was the best path forward. Last month, Monforton said the immediate next step was the diocesan wide survey, the results of which he was slated to present at next week’s USCCB fall meeting before the change of plans.
According to the diocese, 3,200 surveys – about 11 percent of Catholics in the diocese – were submitted, with about 60 percent of respondents indicating that they did not support a merger. A number of those who completed the survey also expressed hope that a merger “would provide needed support and resources” for the diocese, though that percentage wasn’t shared.
The survey respondents’ biggest concerns, the diocese said, were:
- How a merger would affect the diocese’s priests, and a desire to see that they are cared for.
- If a merger would lead to parishes closing.
- How a large urban city – referring to Columbus – would relate to the smaller, more rural counties in the Diocese of Steubenville.
- And a general concern about how a merger would affect the diocese’s Catholic schools.
The Diocese of Columbus serves about 275,000 across more than 20 central and south Ohio counties.
Monforton’s desire for a merger is based largely on statistics on the priests in the diocese and the sustainability of a diocese where the number of parishioners continues to decline.
With priests, Monforton is looking at their ages. The diocese has 23 priests over the age of 50, and 13 aged 49 and younger. With the number of parishioners, Monforton said the diocese would fall below 25,000 total Catholics in 10 years. He argued that the benefit of a merger is resources.
“More resources. More personnel. It’s able to absorb the impacts of the economic downturn much more than us,” the bishop told Crux last month. “We are basically living with rubbing two nickels together. Our unrestricted funds are extremely low. Columbus itself, with more people, can provide more resources for the Diocese of Steubenville.”
Now that the process has moved back to the diocesan level, it’s unclear what the immediate next steps will be, or what the timeline looks like for a final decision on a merger. Monforton emphasized last month that even though the process was underway, it wasn’t a done deal.
Diocese mergers are rare. The last U.S. diocese merger was in 2020, when the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, was merged with the Archdiocese of Anchorage to create the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. The last merger before that was in 1956, when the Dioceses of Kansas City and Saint Joseph merged to create the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg