Bishop Richard J. Malone has been leading the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo for nearly 15 months. He talked with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer about Pope Francis’ recent call for changing the tone of church policy. Malone also discussed church closings and looming changes in some Catholic elementary schools. Here is a summary of key issues in an interview that is part of the “In Focus” series; watch the full interview above.

Meyer: Pope Francis talked about softening the tone of the church: embracing those who criticize church dogma; respecting those whose opinions are completely the opposite. Is this a change beyond tone? Could it be interpreted as a change in substance as well?

Malone: I think sometimes people are interpreting it as a change in substance. It certainly is a change in tone, which I attribute to the unique personality of Pope Francis when you compare him to some of the other Holy Fathers ... Sometimes people interpreted that kind of, you might say a warmer, more personal touch in how he presents himself as perhaps a softening of Catholic convictions on moral issues – or that maybe there will be some change in some of what we see as the hot-button issues – the nature of marriage is the union of man and woman, the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death – whatever it is. There’s not a chance of that. The cardinals of the church would never, never elect a pope who they thought was a risk in terms of changing doctrine.

Meyer: But doesn’t the change in tone almost make it more difficult for bishops like yourself to take a super-strident stand against – as you point out – same-sex marriage or abortion, or those other hot-button issues?

Malone: Interestingly, a couple of days after that famous long interview with Pope Francis was published, he had a meeting in Rome with Catholic gynecologists. And one of his strong themes was that they needed to fight abortion and protect the rights of the unborn. He referred to abortion as a symptom of a throwaway culture. So you don’t see any softening of the pope there ... The Church still must proclaim the truth, even on these difficult, challenging things, but in a loving gracious way ...

Meyer: Let’s talk about a local issue that many people are concerned about, and that is Catholic elementary schools. A study a couple years ago talked about how buildings are not being utilized nearly to full capacity. There’s a push to get schools to talk about consolidation. Are we likely going to see a lot of school closings and consolidations in the near future?

Malone: Right now, there are very focused, facilitated conversations going on among all of the Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Buffalo. We like to think of it – and this is not just a positive spin, it’s what I insist we do – as a revitalization of Catholic education. There are too many empty seats in some of our elementary schools. And a number of those schools are in pretty close proximity to other schools, which means that those schools with empty seats are often competing for the same students ... We have to spend much more money sustaining those not-full buildings that could be used in another way to enhance and strengthen the academic experience ...

Meyer: So looking at student population and trends, what would your guess be as to how many schools [might close]?

Malone: I couldn’t take a guess yet. The teams in parishes and schools are working on that now. We gave them all the official information we have about population trends. We know there’s a steady decline, for example, in the percentage of women of child-bearing age. And we see the effects of that, of course, on the public schools, as well as the Catholic schools.

Meyer: Where are we as it relates to church consolidations? We saw a lot of church closings, a lot of controversy, a lot of heartache. Are we going to see more of that in the near future?

Malone: I don’t think there will be a whole lot of it. My sense is that most of the Journey in Faith and Grace, as we called it, which was Bishop [Edward] Kmiec’s pastoral plan for reconfiguration of the parishes in light of resources and demographic changes, most of that is pretty much in place ... Probably down the line, in the next few years, there may be a couple of other parishes – or a few, I don’t know the number – that might merge into a neighboring parish that would be linked, and then one pastor might have two instead of one parish to lead or something. But that’s not all clear right now.