Pope Francis has published new guidelines on family values - including divorce and contraception - saying Catholic leaders should show more mercy towards its members who stray from church doctrine. 

The long-awaited document released on Friday called the Joy of Love does not change Catholic doctrine, but insists the church should no longer sit in judgement of those who fail to live up its ideals on marriage and family.

On thorny issues such as divorce and remarriage of Catholics, Francis said that he understands those who prefer "a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion". 

We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them.

Pope Francis

"But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness," the pontiff wrote in the 260-page document.  

Catholic doctrine states that unless church members receive annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they are committing adultery and cannot receive Communion.

On Friday, Francis said that the rigorous response by conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus' message of mercy.

He repeated what high-ranking church members had endorsed in previous meetings, highlighting the need for pastors to help individual Catholics over the course of spiritual direction to determine what God is asking of them.

"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," he said.

Last year, Francis issued an order that fast-tracks the process of annulment. 

The document was presented to the press by Cardinals Lorenzo Baldisseri, left, and Christoph Schoenborn on Friday [The Associated Press]

'Respect and dignity'

On contraception, which is also prohibited by the church, Francis stressed that a couple's individual conscience must guide their decisions and the church's pastoral practice.

"We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them," he said.

But he squarely rejected abortion as "horrendous". 

On same-sex marriage, the document repeated the church's position that it cannot be equated to marriage between man and wife. But it also states that gays are not to be discriminated against, and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity.

Mixed reactions in Guatemala to Pope's comments on contraception

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, told a Vatican press conference on Friday that while there was no explicit change in church doctrine about the family, the document contained an "organic development" in church teaching.

"There are true novelties in this document, but no ruptures."

But conservatives were less welcoming of the pope's proposal.  

Mark Brumley, who publishes the writings of retired Pope Benedict XVI, said Francis' emphasis on conscience "doesn't mean this is a free pass to do whatever you want".

"It's a very tricky thing," Brumley said.

Meanwhile, Francis condemned at length the "verbal, physical and sexual violence" many women endure in marriages.

He rejected their "sexual submission" to men and the "reprehensible" practice of female genital mutilation. And he said the belief that feminism was to blame for the crisis in families today was completely invalid.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies