VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP) -- In an interview that is sending shockwaves through the Catholic community, Pope Francis signaled a new tone for the church on highly divisive issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
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.
Pope Francis Faults Church For 'Divisive Rules' On Gays, Abortion, Contraception
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.
NEW YORKERS, CARDINAL DOLAN REACT
On Thursday afternoon, Timothy Cardinal Dolan released the following statement on the Pope's comments:
"In his interview in La Civiltà Cattolica, and America magazine, our Holy Father confirms what has been apparent during these first six months of his papacy: that he is a man who profoundly believes in the mercy of a loving God, and who wants to bring that message of mercy to the entire world, including those who feel that they have been wounded by the Church. As a priest and bishop, I particularly welcome his reminder that the clergy are primarily to serve as shepherds, to be with our people, to walk with them, to be pastors, not bureaucrats! It is becoming more evident every day that we are blessed with a Pope who is a Good Shepherd after the heart of Christ."
Gay Catholics in New York applauded the Pope's comments.
"I think this is a huge change of direction," Jeff Stone with the advocacy group Dignity New York told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell. "What jumped out at me right away is that the Pope said 'this church should be a big church, it should be inclusive.'"
Pope Francis Faults Church For 'Divisive Rules' On Gays, Abortion, Contraception
He said he expects seismic changes through the church hierarchy.
"The cardinals and the bishops are nothing if not very close watchers of everything the Pope says and does," said Stone.
Stone told CBS 2's Jessica Schneider that the Pope's message was one of love.
"It's a huge change in tone. By saying this he's really saying to the Cardinals; enough with the anti-gay marriage campaigns. You've spent too much time concentrated on this. God loves gay people. We're not going to bring condemnation to gay people," Stone said.
As CBS 2's Lou Young reported, the Pope's comments have some jaws dropping among Catholics, lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
"It's like somebody opened a door that's been closed for a very long time!" Sister Suzanne Duzen told CBS 2's Lou Young. "Pope Francis seems to be moving in the direction of welcoming a church, a home for all."
One former Catholic said she couldn't believe what she was reading.
"This is actually a remarkable part of my day. I think that's an incredible hurdle. What a sea-change of thought," Sheila Meeres told Young.
Catholic nun Sister Suzanna Duzen echoed Meeres' sentiments.
"The previous two pontiffs have seemed to emphasize doctrine, orthodoxy, and loyalty. Whereas Pope Francis seems to be moving in the direction of a welcoming church. A home for all," she said.
However, experts caution it is more the tone than the hard substance that changed, albeit in an unprecedented way.
"At no point in the letter does he say 'we've got it wrong about women priests' or 'we've got it wrong about gay and lesbian couples.' What he's saying instead is 'is this what we really should be talking about?'" Fordham University Theology Chairman Patrick Hornbeck told Young.
For some Catholics, the Pope's call for dialogue on these social issues is a hard pill to swallow.
"Why the Pope is making a big thing of it at this point, I'll be darned if I know," Roger Dufort said.
Still, one lapsed Catholic says it softens her view of the church.
"This is very interesting," Lynn Cawley, a former Catholic, told Young. "It's progress."
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.
You May Also Be Interested In These Stories:
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
for more features.