In the first extensive interview of his papacy, Pope Francis says the Roman Catholic Church cannot "interfere spiritually" with the lives of gays and lesbians, and that the church has become "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
The 12,000-word message includes references to a number of hot-button social issues, and comes on the heels of the pope's comment in July that he cannot judge gay priests. In the new interview, published in 16 Jesuit journals around the world Thursday, Francis said the church should be the "home of all," not a "small chapel." He also warned that the church's moral edifice could "fall like a house of cards" if it doesn't better manage its mission to teach moral doctrine.
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," he lamented. "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
The warning is likely to have sharp reverberations in the United States, where some bishops have already publicly voiced dismay that Francis hasn't hammered home church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality -- areas of the culture wars where U.S. bishops often put themselves on the front lines. U.S. bishops were also behind the crackdown of Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, on American nuns who were accused of letting doctrine take a back seat to their social justice work caring for the poor -- precisely the priority that Francis is endorsing.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote in his diocesan newspaper that he was "a little bit disappointed" that Francis hadn't addressed abortion since being elected.
Francis acknowledged that he had been "reprimanded" for not speaking out on such issues. But he said he didn't need to.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he said. "The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
The wide-ranging interview was conducted by La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, over the course of three meetings in August. It was translated from Italian to English and published after the translation was approved by the Vatican.
The interview also touches on Francis' life as a Jesuit and highlights some of his own faults. At one point in the interview he says, "I am a sinner."
Francis has made waves among the faithful because of the stark contrast of his priorities to those of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
They were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of generations of bishops and cardinals around the globe.
Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were not all equivalent.
Rather, he said, the Catholic Church must be like a "field hospital after battle," healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt or excluded or who have fallen away.
"It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!" Francis said. "You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."
Nothing Francis said in this or other interviews indicates any change in church teaching. But he has set a different tone and signaled new priorities compared with Benedict and John Paul -- priorities that have already been visible in his simple style, his outreach to the most marginalized and his insistence that priests be pastors, not bureaucrats.
Francis noted in the latest interview that he had merely repeated church teaching (though he again neglected to repeat the church teaching that says that while homosexuals should be treated with dignity and respect, homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered").
But he continued: "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?'
"We must always consider the person. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing."
The key, he said, is for the church to welcome, not exclude, and show mercy, not condemnation.
"This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity," he said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press.