NEW YORK – About a year after the former bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, publicly announced that a merger with the neighboring Diocese of Columbus was on the table, generating swift backlash from local priests and laity, the two dioceses have announced that merger talks have resumed.

In a joint statement published Dec. 11, Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus and Bishop Paul Bradley, apostolic administrator of Steubenville, announced that they, along with their diocesan staffs, “have begun very preliminary discussions regarding the potential merger of the dioceses.”

According to Fernandes and Bradley, the discussions have resumed at the request of the Apostolic Nunciature, meaning the offices of French Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the papal envoy to the United States. However, diocesan leaders made clear that no decision has been made.

“The Apostolic Nunciature has asked the dioceses to work together to consider how different dimensions of the dioceses, including the temporal aspects of life, might be affected by such a proposal,” Fernandes and Bradley said. “While no decision has been made, due diligence is needed so an educated and responsible decision can be discerned in a timely manner.”

“Ultimately the decision is up to the Holy Father,” Fernandes and Bradley noted.

The idea for the Diocese of Steubenville to merge with the Diocese of Columbus, which sits west of Steubenville in the central part of the state, dates back to 2021, when the Vatican expressed concern about the dioceses’ declining numbers to the then-Steubeville Bishop Jeffrey Monforton.

Currently, the Diocese of Steubenville is home to fewer than 30,000 Catholics across 13 southeastern Ohio counties. Last year, when Monforton went public with the merger possibility, he predicted that the diocese’s Catholic population would continue to fall in the years to come. He also expressed concerns that the diocese would have a hard time replacing an aging clergy.

This past September, Monforton, 60, was reassigned to the Archdiocese of Detroit, his home diocese, where he was appointed an auxiliary bishop. He had served Steubenville since 2012. At the time of his departure, he told Crux he would remove himself from the merger process, but noted that in Steubenville “the status quo is obviously not going to work.”

“We have to really, really, work on our resources,” Monforton said. “We’re just living in a different world than we did when we had the coal mines and the steel mills here. It’s playing catch-up ball, so to speak, and we’ll see how this all transpires and grows.”

At the time of Monforton’s departure, talks of a merger had also stalled.

When Monforton announced publicly that a merger was being explored in October 2022 there was swift backlash. In an ensuing diocesan wide survey, 60 percent of about 3,200 respondents – about 11 percent of Catholics in the diocese – said they did not support a merger.

Meanwhile, the state’s bishops had already met about a year prior and unanimously voted that a Steubenville-Columbus merger was the best path forward. Still, the pushback ultimately led Monforton to table a vote on a merger in the U.S. Bishops 2022 November general assembly.

After the vote was tabled, no formal steps were announced until this past February, when Monforton announced that the diocese would undergo an external “health audit” to determine its financial viability. Until the Dec. 11 announcement from Fernandes and Bradley, neither diocese had commented on a potential merger since, and the results of the audit – if there are any – have not been made public.

The audit is being conducted by public accounting firm Schneider Downs, which is the same firm the diocese turned to during a 2018 embezzlement scandal, which resulted in jail time for the diocese’s former vicar general and comptroller. Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, the metropolitan of the region, is facilitating the audit.

In their statement, Fernandes and Bradley said updates will be provided as the work continues.

“The work has begun, and as the work continues, updates will be provided,” Fernandes and Bradley said. “Bishops Bradley and Fernandes ask the clergy and the laity to pray that the unified work may be fruitful.”

In his Crux interview last September, Monforton said no matter what happens with merger talks, the outcome should not affect the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a private institution considered one of the hubs of conservative Catholic energies in the U.S.

Monforton told Crux he hadn’t spoken to the university about a possible merger, but because it’s owned by the Fransican Friars of the Third Order Regular and not the diocese, he didn’t see how a merger could have an adverse effect on the campus.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg