VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church's moral structure might "fall like a house of cards" if it doesn't balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make it a merciful, more welcoming place for all.
Six months into his papacy, Francis set out his vision for the church and his priorities as pope in a lengthy and remarkably blunt interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine. It was published simultaneously Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, including America magazine in the U.S.
In the 12,000-word article, Francis expands on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledges some of his own faults. He sheds light on his favorite composers, artists, authors and films (Mozart, Caravaggio, Dostoevsky and Fellini's "La Strada") and says he prays even while at the dentist's office.
But his vision of what the church should be stands out, primarily because it contrasts so sharply with many of the priorities of his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals around the globe.
Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were not all equivalent.
"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
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, excluded or 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."
"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 admonition 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 Benedict's crackdown on American nuns, who were accused of letting doctrine take a backseat to their social justice work caring for the poor - precisely the priority that Francis is endorsing.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said in an interview with 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."
Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, was interviewed by Civilta Cattolica's editor, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, over three days in August at the Vatican hotel where Francis chose to live rather than the papal apartments. The Vatican vets all content of the journal, and the pope approved the Italian version of the article.
Nothing Francis said indicates any change in church teaching. But he has set a different tone and signaled new priorities compared to 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.
"Mercy has been a hallmark of his papacy from its earliest days," said the Rev. James Martin, editor at large for America magazine. "The America interview shows a gentle pastor who looks upon people as individuals, not categories."
It also shows a very human Francis: He seemingly had no qualms about admitting that his tenure as superior of Argentina's Jesuit order in the 1970s - starting at the "crazy" age of 36 - was difficult because of his "authoritarian" temperament.
"I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems," he said.
Two months ago, Francis caused a sensation during a news conference when he was asked about gay priests. "Who am I to judge?" about the sexual orientation of priests, as long as they are searching for God and have good will, he responded.
Francis noted in the latest interview that he had merely repeated church teaching during that press conference (though he again neglected to repeat church teaching that says 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.