VATICAN CITY/PARIS - A landmark interview by Pope Francis will force conservative members of the Catholic Church to re-calibrate how they deal with gays, abortion and contraception but is not expected to be the precursor to seismic changes in doctrine, papal experts say.
Pope Francis sent a clear message to officials from the highest reaches of the hierarchy down to the most remote parish that they should not be obsessed with structures, rules and regulations and not put people in moral ghettos.
But Church sources and commentators believed Thursday's long interview, while radical in tone from a man whose humility and popular touch marks him out from his predecessor, did not herald rapid change in teachings on homosexual activity, contraception and abortion that have threatened to split the church.
In fact on Friday, Francis, with little fanfare, re-stated the Church's opposition to abortion in a speech to Catholic doctors, speaking of those "unjustly condemned to abortion".
But the interview with the Argentine pontiff, released six months into the first non-European papacy in 1,300 years, will force pastors who have stridently condemned homosexuality or women who have had abortions to change their tone.
The confessional, Francis warned them, is "not a torture chamber"; without mercy, he said, "even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards".
"To be sure, this is very challenging to everyone who has been so heavily and thoroughly invested in the former perspective," a senior Vatican prelate said. "Everyone, especially bishops and bishops' conferences will feel the need to re-calibrate their priorities, their style, their tone."
MERCIFUL AND WELCOMING
In the interview, Francis, 76, said the Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and be merciful and welcoming with those not able to live up to some rules. Homosexual acts, aborting foetuses or artificially preventing conception remain sins worthy of damnation - but sinners may still hope for God's forgiveness.
"We have often put moral issues ahead of faith instead of the opposite," conceded another official, a monsignor who is the deputy head of a major Vatican department. "What the pope is saying is that rules are a consequence of faith. Faith is not a consequence of rules. You can't substitute faith with moralism."
In other words, another figure in the Vatican said, Catholics can expect to hear sermons condemning abortion but not sermons excoriating women who may have felt obliged to terminate a pregnancy because of their economic or social situation.