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Pope’s views moral, not political, bishop says

With political theater around the race for president already heating up, Pope Francis’ remarks to Congress later this week are sure to be scrutinized for whether they seem to favor Democrats or Republicans.

But the leader of Western New York’s 600,000-plus Catholics cautioned Monday against interpreting the pope’s comments in political terms.

“Pope Francis is coming here primarily not as a politician or as a political scientist,” said Bishop Richard J. Malone. “He’s coming here primarily on what we call a pastoral visit. He’s coming as the chief shepherd and universal pastor of the Catholic community worldwide.

“And he would understand any comments he would make about world or national issues that others might say are political issues, he would see all of them as moral issues, because the Catholic understanding of morality and ethics covers everything that involves humankind.”

Malone talked with reporters at the Catholic Center in Buffalo. He will attend papal activities in all three cities on the agenda of the pontiff’s first-ever visit to the United States.

The pope’s visit begins Tuesday afternoon. He is scheduled to arrive from Cuba at 4 p.m. at Joint Base Andrews, Md., outside Washington, D.C.

Francis on Thursday will be the first pope in history to address a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber. His remarks have been highly anticipated for weeks.

Whatever the pope focuses on in that talk, his words shouldn’t be misconstrued as taking sides in the nation’s fractious political debates, Malone said.

“The pope covers the whole spectrum,” Malone said.

“Of course, what happens in a place like the United States – where we have this partisan tension all the time and everyone looks at things through those lenses – is people are trying to say, well, he’s going to side with the Democrats on some things or with the Republicans on others. It’s inevitable because the pope doesn’t think in terms of political parties.

“He thinks in terms of Catholic moral values, and from that he’ll give his positions on things.”

Malone will be among 230 American bishops attending a morning prayer session with the pope Wednesday in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.

The bishop will travel the same day to New York City, where he’s scheduled to meet with Francis on Thursday in a small group of bishops from New York State.

“It’ll be a few seconds,” Malone said.

Malone met the pope on one previous occasion at the Vatican, again for little more than a few seconds.

“All I said was, ‘Holy Father, thank you for teaching us bishops how to be good shepherds.’ ”

No one knows exactly what ground Francis will cover in his addresses to Congress, the United Nations and in a variety of other stops, including the White House and Philadelphia.

But anticipation continues to mount.

“I’ve rarely heard Pope Francis speak without saying something dramatic,” Malone said.

“And, of course, as we all know, he gets particularly dramatic when he goes off text and when some particular thought or concern comes into his mind and heart, and he speaks it very freely.

“I think he’ll catch our attention.”