Pope Francis has 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".
Signalling a dramatic shift in Vatican tone, Francis said in an interview with an Italian Jesuit journal, published on Thursday, that 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 theology commentators said they were likely to be viewed with concern by conservatives who have already expressed concern over Francis' 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.
It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
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.
The pope told the magazine he envisioned a greater role for women in the 1.2 bn-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.
"Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free," Francis said.
"It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."
American Jesuit and author of several books on the Vatican, John Gehring, said Francis was "rescuing the church from those who think that condemning gay people and opposing contraception define what it means to be a real Catholic.
"It's a remarkable and refreshing change," Gehring said.
However, Francis alluded to criticism of him within the conservative Catholic establishment.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible." he said.
"I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that."
Last week, US Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, spoke for many conservative Catholics when he said he was disappointed that the pope had not addressed "the evil of abortion" more directly to encourage anti-abortion activists.
US 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 - a priority that Francis is endorsing.
The pope said the church's pastoral ministry could not be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
"We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards," he said.
However, the comments contained no change in church teaching, and the pope said reform should not happen quickly.