VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful or risk the collapse of its entire moral edifice "like a house of cards".
In a dramatically blunt interview with an Italian Jesuit journal, Francis said the Church had "locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" and should not be so prone to condemn.
Its priests should be more welcoming and not cold, dogmatic bureaucrats. The confessional, he said, "is not a torture chamber but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better."
His comments were welcomed by liberal Catholics; but they are likely to be viewed with concern by conservatives who have already expressed concern over Francis's failure to address publicly the issues stressed by his predecessor, Benedict.
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, the first from Latin America and the first Jesuit pope, did not hold out the prospect of any changes soon to such moral teachings.
But, in the 12,000-word interview with Civilta Cattolica, he said the Church must find a new balance between upholding rules and demonstrating mercy. "Otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards."
In the interview with the magazine's director, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, he also said he envisioned a greater role for women in the 1.2 billion member Church but suggested it would not include a change in the current ban on a female priesthood.
In a remarkable change from his predecessor Benedict, who said homosexuality was an intrinsic disorder, Francis said that when homosexuals told him they were always condemned by the Church and felt "socially wounded", he told them "the Church does not want to do this".
He re-stated his comments first made on a plane returning from a visit to Brazil in July that he was not in a position to judge homosexuals who are of good will and in search of God.
In the interview released on Thursday, he added: "Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free. It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."
The Church, he said, should see itself as "a field hospital after a battle" and try to heal the larger wounds of society and not be "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."