VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis offered an olive branch of sorts to the doctrine-minded, conservative wing of the Catholic Church on Friday as he denounced abortion as a symptom of today's "throw-away culture" and encouraged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them.
Francis issued a strong anti-abortion message and cited Vatican teaching on the need to defend the unborn during an audience with Catholic gynecologists.
It came a day after he was quoted as blasting the church's obsession with "small-minded rules" that are driving the faithful away and urging it focus instead on being merciful and welcoming -- an interview that has sent shock waves throughout the church.
Even before the interview was published, conservatives had voiced disappointment that Francis had shied away from restating church rules on such hot-button issues as abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage. Francis explained his reason for doing so in the interview with the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, saying church teaching on such issues is well-known, he supports it, but that he doesn't feel it necessary to repeat it constantly.
He did repeat that message on Friday, however. In his comments, Francis denounced today's "throw-away culture" that justifies disposing of lives, and said doctors in particular had been forced into situations where they are called to "not respect life."
"Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord," he said.
He urged the gynecologists to abide by their consciences and help bring lives into the world. "Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things," he said.
Francis' comments to Civilta Cattolica contained no change in church teaching, but they represented a radical shift in tone and stood in stark contrast to the priorities of his two immediate predecessors.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals who, in countries like the United States, have put themselves at the forefront of the culture wars in opposing abortion and gay marriage. They now find themselves being asked to preach more to those people who have fallen away from the church and offer them a compassionate welcome back.
Greg Burke, the Vatican's senior communications adviser, insisted Friday that Francis was by no means calling into question the papacies and priorities of his predecessors.
"The pope is not condemning his predecessors," Burke told The Associated Press. "What he is saying is `We've spent a lot of time talking about the boundaries, we've spent a lot of time talking about what is sin and what's not. Now let's move on. Let's talk about mercy. Let's talk about love."'
Tricia Thomas in Rome contributed.