NEW YORK – Months after Bishop Jeffrey Monforton announced his desire for the Diocese of Steubenville in Ohio to merge with the Diocese of Columbus, causing a stir that resulted in the canceling of a U.S. bishops vote on the idea, he says every option is still on the table but by no means is a merger inevitable.
After the whirlwind of the fall, Monforton dubbed the theme of the moment “we’re taking a step back.” And while discerning the future of the Ohio Valley diocese continues, the process has slowed down, and will take into account a swath of different perspectives before any decisions are made.
“Absolutely not,” Monforton said when asked if a merger was inevitable. “Everything is on the table.”
“I’m going to see what the future holds at this point, so I’m not going to say I’m holding steadfastly towards a merger,” he continued. “I’m just stepping back. That’s the best way to take a look at it, and to see just exactly how we continue to proceed forward in looking at the diocese.”
Crux spoke with Monforton on Jan. 26 about what’s next for the diocese. Reflecting on the initial announcement, the bishop acknowledged that things could’ve been handled differently.
“The question is, could I have done it differently? The answer is ‘yes,’” Monforton said. “I can’t just do a 35,000-foot look at the whole situation. I have to take a look at it personally, as well.”
Monforton announced the proposed merger on Oct. 10, 2022.
Monforton told Crux at the time that the possibility of a merger became apparent about a year and a half ago when the Holy See expressed concern over declining numbers in the diocese, and the two sides agreed something had to be done. Months later, the Ohio bishops met and unanimously voted that a Diocese of Steubenville and Diocese of Columbus merger was the best path forward.
Central to Monforton’s position were the older ages of priests in the diocese, and a belief that the diocese would fall below 25,000 total Catholics in 10 years. The Diocese of Steubenville currently has about 29,000 Catholics, 36 priests and 51 parishes across 13 southeastern Ohio counties.
The diocese is also home to the Fransiscan University of Steubenville. Monforton said he hasn’t spoken to the university about the merger, but because it’s owned by the Fransican Friars of the Third Order Regular, and not the diocese, he doesn’t see how a merger could have an adverse effect on the campus.
The October announcement said the immediate next step in the process was sending out a survey to the Diocese of Steubenville’s faithful to get their perspectives on the matter, and give them a “chance to vent.” It also revealed that those results would be presented at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops general assembly in November, where a vote on the merger would take place.
Instead, less than a month later on Nov. 7, 2022, Monforton wrote a letter to the clergy and religious in the diocese that he had requested that the U.S. bishops’ conference table the vote, after receiving feedback of “disappointment” and “fear” from priests and laity over the potential change. In the Jan. 26 conversation with Crux, Monforton emphasized it was his call, and his call alone, to cancel the vote.
As for where things stand now, Monforton said he’s been in contact with the metropolitan of the province, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, and the Holy See, as well as “a number of the [diocese] consultative bodies.” He also has meetings coming up with the presbyterate council consultors.
Monforton said the survey results yielded a number of recommendations for possible paths forward. The frequency of the different recommendations and how realistic they are will be assessed, he added, though he declined to share any of them beyond saying they are across “the whole spectrum.”
“I’m grateful for the constructive suggestions made in the letters to me after the announcement, and I’m equally grateful for the feedback in the survey we conducted after the announcement and a lot of that will predicate how we move forward,” the bishop said.
The reality, though, according to Monforton, is given the declining numbers in the diocese “doing nothing is not an option.” But the important thing is making “sure what’s done is right because in the end it’s on me and I want to make sure that it’s done right for the people of God.”
“In the end, the Catholic Church is not leaving the Ohio Valley. That’s a certainty,” Monforton said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg