Eighteen priests of the Diocese of Steubenville have written to multiple bishops who are key leaders and officers in the USCCB to request that the vote set to be taken later this month be delayed.

Here is the text of the letter (I got the images of it from JD Flynn of The Pillar), and I’ll offer some thoughts below…

Your Excellencies

On October 17, many of us wrote to the Bishops of Ohio voicing our conviction that the Diocese of Steubenville should not be merged with the Diocese of Columbus. In that letter (a copy of which is enclosed), we asserted that the Diocese of Steubenville should remain open, and we cited statistics and facts that contradict much diminutive and inadequate information that has been presented to the public.

We, along with several other brothers, now find it necessary to address Your Excellencies regarding serious procedural concerns about the process that has been undertaken. 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. Bishop Monforton did not consult with the College of Consultors, the Presbyteral Council, Diocesan Finance Council, or any other group. While a procedure for suppression of a diocese is not stipulated in canon law, the fact remains that if a bishop were to suppress a parish in such a manner, the Holy See would very likely deem the procedure invalid in a case of hierarchical recourse. Even though the letter of the law has not been violated, the spirit of the law has been deeply wounded.

Following the decision’s announcement, the Bishop offered an extraordinarily restrictive survey (copy enclosed) 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. This approach is not in any way in keeping with the synodal and “listening” Church to which the Holy Father is calling us. For example, 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 consequence? 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.

In mid-October, the Catholic University of American published Well-being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests. As Your Excellencies are aware, the study found that the quality of the relationship between a bishop and his priests has deteriorated seriously, with only 49 percent of priests having confidence in their bishop’s leadership and a mere 24 percent having confidence in the leadership of the national episcopate. Half of diocesan priests reported experiencing ministerial burnout and being demoralized, and America magazine noted that “researchers found that the level of trust between a priest and his bishop is ‘a major factor’ in the priest’s overall well-being.”

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 and the resulting lack of confidence and trust that priests should be able to have in their bishop and vice versa. For us, this decision to suppress our diocese without any consultation with us has demoralized us and certainly damaged the presbyterate’s relationship with the Bishop. In fact, this act further compounds the feeling of abandonment that we, along with the people, already felt. Our brothers in other dioceses have made known to us the shock, pain, and fear that what is happening in this diocese is causing them, as well. If the process of the proposed merger of the Diocese of Steubenville with the Diocese of Columbus continues as it has, it will damage more deeply the too often tenuous relationship between bishop and priests and contribute to more burnout and distrust.

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. Barely a month would have passed between Bishop Monforton’s October 10 announcement of the proposed merger and the vote by the Conference if the process continues as is. That extremely short period of time is insufficient for authentic dialogue and discernment, and it is in many ways an affront to the dignity of the clergy and laity within this particular Church. In an October 10 interview with Crux, Bishop Monforton described the survey currently ongoing as the “‘chance to vent.’” Can there be authentic dialogue if the discussion is merely a “‘chance to vent?’”

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 and greatly impacts our relationship with the Church and each other. 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 proposed merger has bene offered as a “template” for future diocesan mergers. Is what we are experiencing an expression of the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council? Should that be a “template” for the future? We do not think so.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns, and we will, of course, pray for wisdom and guidance in this most serious matter.

Respectfully yours in Christ,

My thoughts in follow up:

First, that’s a fairly striking point they make:  the suppression of a parish wouldn’t be conducted in this manner without getting a long hard look from the Vatican. How can an entire diocese be vulnerable to such a process?

Second, I’d like to draw together a couple of threads they lay out. In this letter they talk about clergy from other dioceses expressing shock and concern over the process playing out here. They don’t stipulate the way in which this process is affecting those priests, but I wonder if the priests in question are from other smaller, troubled dioceses — dioceses that have more actual problems than Steubenville has. I wonder if those priests see the way in which Bishop Monforton dropped this announcement like a ton of bricks on everyone, eighteen months after the conversation had started with the Vatican, many months after the bishops of Ohio voted on it, and only five weeks before the USCCB as a whole was set to vote on it.

I wonder if those priests look at that and are now wondering if their own bishop is hiding from them a similar secret. How many of them look at the strained-but-stable finances of Steubenville and see that their own diocese is in as-bad, if not worse, shape.

I wonder if they look at their own priest shortage and see it is far worse than Steubenville’s. That their percentage of the population that is Catholic is lower, and their rate of Mass attendance among Catholics is lower.

I wonder if they look at all of this and are now wondering how many of their dioceses are secretly on the list for extinction.

Bishop Monforton did refer to this process as “a template.” Maybe he meant that to include waiting until more or less the last possible second to tell anyone. “Don’t tell anyone until it’s too late, so as to minimize the amount of time they have to complain and cause unpleasantness.”

I wonder how many other dioceses are watching this and are wondering, “are we next?”