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Buffalo bishop supports Pope Francis’ message on changing focus of church policy

Buffalo’s Bishop Richard J. Malone said Sunday he was “delighted” with Pope Francis’ recent comments on the need for the church to focus less on hot-button issues like abortion and homosexual rights and more on the larger Catholic doctrines of love and compassion for everyone.

“I think it was wonderful,” Malone said, speaking to reporters before Mass at Holy Cross Church in Buffalo. “I think what he is doing is trying to help the world see that as important as some of the hot-button issues are, they are not the essence of Christianity, of the Catholic Church.”

Francis, in a recent interview, said that the Catholic Church seems obsessed with abortion, homosexual rights and contraception.

The pope criticized the church for putting dogma before love and moral obligations such as serving the poor.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” Francis said.

“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance; otherwise, even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

The pope is not backing away from church doctrine opposing abortion, gay marriage or contraceptives, Malone said.

But Pope Francis is setting a new tone by saying that the church respects everyone, even those who don’t agree with all church doctrine, he continued.

What’s more, Malone said, the pope is emphasizing that the church is larger than its positions on these issues.

“The pope is saying we need to look into people’s hearts and have respect for everyone, even those who disagree with us on these big issues,” he said.

“I think he’s spot on,” said Shirley Holzknecht, 77, a retired school principal attending services in Little Rock, Ark. “As Catholic Christians, we do need to be more welcoming.”

Malone agreed with that sentiment. Sometimes, he said, the arms of the church can seem closed to some.

“I think the pope is trying to say ‘No. Those arms of the church, the hand of Christ, have to be wide open.’ ”

“The Catholic Church,” Malone continued, “will never go with the whims of the times. We hold firm on the doctrines.

“To take an unborn human life is murder,” he said.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Sunday that the pope’s words were welcome.

“He’s captured the world’s imagination,” Dolan said after Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. “Like Jesus, he’s always saying, ‘Hate the sin; love the sinner.’ ”

But Dolan said Francis’ change in tone didn’t signal a change in doctrine.

“He knows that his highest and most sacred responsibility is to pass on the timeless teaching of the church,” Dolan said. “What he’s saying is, we’ve got to think of a bit more effective way to do it. Because if the church comes off as a scold, it’s counterproductive.”

Malone said that Francis, by saying the church should not be identified solely by hot-button issues, is showing the church is mainly about Christ and God’s mercy.

“His message is a change in tone, not really in substance, trying to achieve a new balance in how Catholics and non-Catholics perceive the church and its teachings,” Malone said.

Francis’ comments, which appeared in America magazine, a national Catholic review, sparked a continuing discussion on the pope’s intention, particularly since his comments often seemed opposite those of his predecessor.

Still, Francis made it clear even as the article was still being read for the first time by many Catholics that his more welcoming view did not change church doctrine.

The day after the article appeared, Malone noted, the pope addressed a group of Catholic doctors on the evils of abortion. “He called on the physicians to protect unborn life,” Malone said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.