Friday, October 28, 2022

The Extinction of Steubenville and the Future of American Catholicism

[Oct. 27. 2022] The recent drama unfolding in the Diocese of Steubenville is a foretaste of what many dioceses can expect as the demographic winter continues its slow avalanche over Catholic life in the west.

For those of you who are unaware, on this October 10, Steubenville's ordinary, Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, announced to an assembly of priests ad deacons that the Diocese of Steubenville was going to be merged back into the Diocese of Columbus. Steubenville was originally carved out of the Diocese of Columbus in 1944. The ostensible reasons given by Bishop Monforton are demographic—Steubenville has seen decreasing numbers of Catholics for years now, with only an estimated 40,000 remaining in the diocese.

Per canon law, only the pope can merge or notably alter a diocese (Can. 373 et al); Bishop Monforton has stated that the Vatican is involved in the merger. The merger is also being described as "extinctive," which means the Diocese of Steubenville will  cease to exist. The 13 counties that currently comprise the diocese will all be folded back into the Diocese of Columbus. Priests ordained in Steubenville who vowed to give their lives to the church in Steubenville will now be priests of Columbus.

As one might expect from the machinations of the modern episcopacy, Bishop Monforton has been less than transparent about how this decision was arrived at. Consider the following:

  • Monforton says the decision was made by a vote of the six Ohio bishops in 2021. When was this meeting? How was this subject brought up? What bishops voted for it and who voted against it? Nobody knows.

  • Nobody within the diocese was consulted, neither the presbyteral council, the chancery, or any representatives of the laity. The only people consulted, according to Monforton, were a group of anonymous  "local entrepreneurs and business people", who  apparently told Monforton the demographics and financials were terminal. Who these "local entrepreneurs and business people" were and why they were consulted instead of the people of the diocese remains a mystery.

  • In what sense is the Vatican involved? Did the idea for this merger originate with Monforton, who subsequently went to the Vatican for approval? Or did the Vatican pressure Monforton to execute the merger? Monforton has stated that he first sought the approval of the Vatican 18 months ago about the possibility of the merger, but the exact nature of the Vatican's involvement remains uncertain

  • While I don't want to get bogged down in numbers and statistics, I will say that the demographic and financial picture Monforton paints of Steubenville is contested. While no one denies the demographic troubles that have beset the Church in recent years, critics say the crisis is not so severe as to merit the extinction of the entire diocese. Other indicators—such as Mass attendance among the highest levels in the country—suggest that, though the Catholic population of the Steubenville diocese is small, it is vibrant and hopeful.

This is the sad reality many of us will deal with within our lifetimes—not merely the closure of a school or cluster of a parish, but the extinction of an entire diocese executed by episcopal fiat. You can be sure that the change will not be merely administrative, consisting only of scratching out Steubenville on a map and writing Columbus over it. The merger will have profound ramifications on the spiritual life of Catholics in Steubenville. Columbus might not have the same level of decline as Steubenville, but it is certainly not free of its own demographic issues. As soon as Steubenville is folded into Columbus, no doubt Archbishop Schnurr or his successor will immediately conduct some sort of inventory of all of their newly acquired territory and infrastructure. There will be meetings and "listening sessions"—sessions of the same sort that a corporation holds in a company they have just acquired to see whose jobs they can cut.

Afterwards, there will be some new initiative announced. It will have some schmaltzy, saccharine name concocted by a marketing firm, something like "The Way Forward" or "On the Road Together." These names, of course, will be shells hiding the fact that the program's purpose is to dissect the corpse of Steubenville. Like Orwell's Ministry of Truth, the program's true nature will be the opposite of its nomenclature. 

Then the closures will hit. Columbus, with its own limited assets, will not wish to extend its already stretched resources to maintain the parish infrastructure in east Ohio. Even the assumption of the entire presbyterate and property of Steubenville will not furnish Columbus with what it needs. If Bishop Monforton says that the Diocese of Steubenville does not have the resources it needs to continue now, it follows that handing those resources over to Columbus won't solve the problem. Columbus will need to either allocate more priests and funding to its newly acquired possessions (which it won't), or start cutting. There will be more closures, clusters, and mergers. But since Steubenville already has such a small Catholic population, the closures will hit especially hard. Families who already drive 45 minutes to Mass will now drive an hour and a half. More duties will be farmed out to permanent deacons, lay administrators, and parish councils. Priests will have less personal involvement with their parishioners as they constantly drive between multiple parishes scattered about the countryside, having no place to lay their head. Confessions will be challenging to come by. Counseling or spiritual direction from a priest will be nigh on impossible; these "functions" will be delegated to "certified" spiritual directors (mostly middle aged women) who fancy themselves spiritual masters because they passed a diocese training course.

I don't know what the status of the Traditional Latin Mass is in Steubenville, but this certainly can't bode well for it, simply in terms of the availability of venues.

This is the future of Catholicism in much of America. And while the reform of the Conciliar era and the dismantling of Catholic tradition certainly holds much of the blame here, it is not the sole culprit. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox communities in America—who maintained their ancient rites and had no "Vatican II moment"—are seeing similar demographic declines to we Catholics. It is more deeply rooted than the changes of Vatican II. The conciliar reforms have merely exacerbated something far more destructive and insidious; like Gmork aiding the Nothing in The Neverending Story, they are not ultimately responsible for the loss of faith but are accelerating it through their collaboration with the spirit of modernity. 

Will you keep faith? I believe you will. But will you maintain your peace? Will you maintain joy? Will you radiate the love of Christ as you drive two hours one way to receive Holy Communion once a month? These will be tough times for all of us. May they only serve to heighten our faith, strengthen our resolve, and nourish our charity.

As for Steubenville, there are two websites I'd like to draw your attention to if you'd like to learn more about this issue: The first is Save the Diocese of Steubenville, a very informative site run by Tom Crowe with plenty of articles. I would characterize Mr. Crowe's site as investigative, providing oversight, commentary, and criticism of the process which, thus far, has been far from transparent. The second site is United Voices in Defense of the Diocese of Steubenville. United Voices is more of an activist site dedicated to using all available canonical means to preserving the diocese.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

The Most Fruitless Search

There is a moment of epiphany on the road to Traddie-dom that occurs when you realize that the progressive junta that controls the Church does not actually care what Vatican II taught. 

I remember my mindset before this earthshaking revelation! I recall arguing that what we needed was fidelity to the conciliar documents, getting back to "what Vatican II really taught." I used to post essays exegeting the conciliar documents in an attempt to show "what they really mean." I was fully aboard the Weigelian Express, hoping, ever vainly, for a "real implementation of the Council." I thought patient explanation of the "real meaning" of these documents was a sufficient response to the Modernist crisis; that the reason priests and bishops allowed nonsense unchecked throughout their churches was because they honestly didn't know that Sacrosanctum concilium called for the preservation of Latin and chant, or sincerely didn't understand the real meaning of participatio actuosa.

But how many years can one exhaust themselves in such pursuits? How long can you beat your head on the wall? To be sure, it is important to understand the documents from a theological perspective; but it is another thing if we think that patiently explaining the documents in hopes that the "real Council" will emerge is anything other than chasing an elusive will-o-the-wisp. 

At a certain point I realized—as many of us have—that the progressives don't care what Vatican II said. They don't view the Council as a series of teachings; rather, they view it as an event. And not just any event, but an event whose nature is meta-historical. It is not merely another step in the long path of historical development; it is a paradigm shattering upheaval that breaks the fourth wall of history, purporting not just to change the historical trajectory of the Church, but to remove the Church entirely from the bounds of history and tradition. What do people with such lofty vision, such grandiose pretensions, care about the precise definition of participatio actuosa, the rubrics of the GIRM, or any other considerations that are merely textual?

Six years ago I was invited to the home of a mainstream Catholic apologist to deliver a talk on the role of Catholic Tradition (you can find the lecture on YouTube). Therein I argued—as I still argue today—that treating the Council like a collection of texts while failing to understand it as a historical event is the principal reason why "conservatives" make no headway against the progressive revolution. After the talk, one of the attendees, a notable hyperpapalist theologian, just kept shaking his head in disagreement, saying, "No, no, the documents matter!" as if it were a mantra. This fellow has been rightly lambasted in traditional Catholic outlets recently for ridiculous attempts to square the circle concerning Traditionis custodes. Six years later and he's still shaking his head and repeating the mantra.

When speaking of Sacred Scripture, St. Thomas Aquinas says we can have a meaningful disputation with an opponent only if they at least admit at least some of the truths of revelation. "Against those who deny one article of faith," he says, "we can argue from another." But what if the opponent does not grant any of the articles of divine revelation? Then argument becomes impossible, as there is no common ground, for, he continues, "if our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections" (STh I, Q. 1, art 8).

Similarly, if it has become clear that progressive don't grant any authority to the texts of Vatican II, then upon what common ground can we stand? Upon what foundation do we plant our feet when we presume to uncover "what the Council really said" when our opponents do not care? We are not dealing with two different hermeneutical approaches to conciliar documents, but two different paradigms of the Council itself, between which there is a vast chasm fixed, that those who would pass from one to the other might not be able.

I can hear some objecting, "Trads don't grant authority to the texts of Vatican II either!" It is true that we do not grant it infallible authority, but this is hardly novel; it is nothing beyond what Paul VI himself taught, when he said:

"There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification, the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions backed by the Church's infallible teaching authority. The answer is known by those who remember the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964. In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided proclaiming in an extraordinary manner any dogmata carrying the mark of infallibility." (Pope Paul VI, General Audience of January 12, 1966)

Traditional Catholics are in fact the only segment of the Church attempting to construct an accurate interpretation of Vatican II, both in terms of the documents' meaning and authority. While understanding the documents were only part of the phenomenon known as Vatican II, we still affirm they have an objective content that should at least be understood. 

This is totally contrary to the progressive manner of utilizing the documents. The examples are legion, but to take one recent occasion, we could turn to this article from America magazine where a Jesuit cardinal waxes eloquent about the Amazon's newly approved "ecclesial conferences" that will replace the regional episcopal conference. These new conferences will incorporate lay people—men and women—in the governance of the Church. The cardinal says this arrangement "stems from the Second Vatican Council" and cites Lumen Gentium in justification. Lumen Gentium says nothing about lay people governing the Church; it specifically says that the bishops rule the Church by divine decree, and that lay people participate in the work of God through their secular work and family life. I do not want to revisit the whole matter here, but if you want my take I recently recorded a video breaking down this ridiculous article, which you can view here on the Unam Sanctam YouTube channel (apologies for the blurred video at some parts; blame my sketchy rural internet). The cardinal doesn't care what Vatican II teaches. "Vatican II" becomes a meaningless label assigned to any and every novelty.

If you do watch, you will see that the ridiculous novelties the Vatican is churning out faster than the Fed churns out USD are more likely to elicit my laughter than my consternation these days. To be sure, I am deeply saddened and appalled at the state of my Holy Mother Church, but there is only so much a person can stand up to before their battle-worn face cracks into a smile, then breaks forth into laughter at the nonsense of it all. It is a strange but proper human response to absurdity, especially in situations where the severity has escalated to the point of ridiculousness. Saddle me with a ten thousand dollar debt and I will be concerned; saddle me with a ten million dollar debt and I am more likely to laugh in your face. 

There is no more useless endeavor than to search for "the real Vatican II." One has better chances finding the Fountain of Youth or the Ark of the Covenant. That's because there is no "real Vatican II" that can be found by documentary analysis alone, and it is a most fruitless search to think otherwise. Vatican II can't be found solely in the documents any more than the French Revolution can be found by reading the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

And so, I no longer engage in intellectual hand-wringing over the "real meaning" of Vatican II. I certainly acknowledge an objective meaning of the documents, and I am even capable of extrapolating upon it if I've had enough to drink. But I have long since jumped off the Weigelian Express, preferring rather to walk in "the ancient paths where the good way is" (Jer. 6:16), even if I move at a snail's pace, for I prefer the exile of the desert to the plunge off the precipice of irrelevance that the "real council" railcar is heading for.