You have probably heard that the current bishop of Steubenville, Jeffery M. Monforton, has officially proposed to merge the Diocese of Steubenville with the Diocese of Columbus– meaning, as far as I can tell, that there wouldn’t be a separate bishop in Steubenville anymore and Columbus would own everything. Do read that entire article in the Columbus Dispatch, which gives you an excellent overview of the situation.
Monforton has said that this merger is necessary because the diocese is rapidly shrinking and doesn’t have enough money, and both these things are true. The Diocese is located in an extremely economically depressed area. The Catholic population here is very small, and has been steadily imploding for decades. We’re remarkably smaller by population than any other diocese in Ohio.
In a way, it’s shocking to be reminded that the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville doesn’t have all that many Catholics in it. Say the word “Steubenville” in a Catholic setting anywhere in the United States and the other Catholics either cringe or give a big smile. Whatever our reputation is, we have one. We’re supposed to be a Catholic Disneyland. And right here in the town of Steubenville, there are several Catholic parishes which are packed to the gills on Sundays. They are nicely staffed. They have daily Masses and regular confessions and adoration chapels. But in other towns in the diocese, this isn’t so. Take one step outside of city limits and the situation is completely different. Most of the parishes around here share one priest with three or four other parishes at least. The Catholic population of the Steubenville diocese is tiny now, and it was never large to begin with.
When Bishop Anthony John King Mussio was appointed the first bishop of the new diocese of Steubenville in 1945, he was overseeing a boomtown full of working-class Catholic immigrants from Italy, Ireland and eastern Europe. A huge number of those people left when the steel industry left the Valley in the 1970s and 80s. They’ve been trickling out ever since.
When Father Mike Scanlan came to Steubenville to help found a covenant community and turn a dying college into a bustling moneymaker in the 1970s, he was not trying to organize the local Catholics. He was trying to make something that hadn’t existed before, with new recruits from elsewhere. He created a bubble, a beautiful-looking community of strict Catholics all carried away by the fervor of the Charismatic Renewal, all breathlessly anticipating the end times where they would survive the coming persecution by their faithfulness to Christ and one another. The people who gladly filled that bubble for him came from other places to settle in Steubenville. That bubble, the covenant community known as Servants of Christ the King, was a cult. That cult arranged marriages, the cult came between husbands and wives and ordered them to emotionally and physically abuse their children as well. The cult controlled members’ finances and what they were allowed to say. The cult emotionally and spiritually abused vulnerable people. And that we know by their own admission from their own documents. In 1991, Bishop Ottenweller shut that cult down, but its members remained in the area. A number of them went on to work at Franciscan University. Many of them are still here, and the culture of the cult still permeates the university culture. But they are a single bubble of fervent, reactionary, toxic Catholicism in a diocese that isn’t very Catholic. The wall of that bubble shakes a little every time another scandal at the university is made public. I don’t know how much more it can take. I don’t claim to know when it will pop. But it’s just a bubble. It’s not the diocese. The diocese is different.
Now, it seems that Bishop Monforton might be the very last bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville. The reins are likely to be turned over to Bishop Fernandes of Columbus. Holy Name Cathedral will never reopen. People will protest, petitions will be signed, but if things go as planned, it’s over.
And how do I feel about that?
I don’t feel anything at all right now.
This isn’t right of me. I ought to get good and angry. Even though the diocese can’t sustain itself, a merger with Columbus is a horrible idea. Parishes, particularly in rural parts of Ohio, will close, leaving their parishioners with a long commute to receive the sacraments. Small Catholic communities will be broken up. Priests who are devoted to their congregations will be shuffled far away. Survivors of sexual abuse, as well as whistle blowers for all kinds of abuse and wrongdoing, will have a much harder time getting the attention of a distant bishop with a gigantic diocese to oversee. And Fernandes, in his short tenure as the bishop of Columbus, has already demonstrated that he’s not looking out for marginalized Catholics and will do whatever he pleases. I don’t believe he is the kind of bishop who will hold the TORs of Franciscan University responsible. I think he’ll let them run on an even looser leash than bishops of Steubenville have done. This is a catastrophe in the making. But still, I can’t muster any feeling.
I have lived right here in the middle of the toxic Catholic Bubble for a decade and a half. Before that I was a Charismatic in the Diocese of Columbus. I’ve spoken publicly as a Catholic and taken the harassment that comes from other Catholics in that position for about six years now. I am so overwhelmed by the corruption and abuse in the Catholic Church in general, and around here in particular, that I can’t give a fig about another disaster looming on the horizon. I’m too overwhelmed by religious trauma to even attend Mass anymore, lately. I can’t add any more overwhelm from this news.
Sorry if that disappoints anyone, but that’s my take on the proposed ending of the Diocese of Steubenville: the diocese probably needs to close, merging with Columbus is the worst way for that to happen, I ought to care and so ought you, but I can’t. I’m numb to both the good and the bad of the situation.
That’s all I’ve got today.
image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.