THE Catholic Church will "fall like a house of cards" unless its leaders are able to strike a "new balance" between their political activities and their spiritual mission, Pope Francis has said.
In a stern warning, the Pontiff said the Catholic Church's moral edifice 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 the church a merciful, more welcoming place for all".
"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," he 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."
Pope Francis 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 or excluded or who have simply 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."
Six months into his papacy, the Pope set out his vision for the church and his priorities in a remarkably candid and lengthy interview with 'La Civilta Cattolica', the Italian Jesuit magazine. It was published simultaneously yesterday in other Jesuit journals, including 'America' magazine in the US.
In the article, he expands on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledges some of his own faults. The Pope sheds light on his favourite composers, artists, authors and films (Mozart, Caravaggio, Dostoevsky and Fellini's 'La Strada') and says he prays even while he is at the dentist's.
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 generations of bishops and cardinals around the globe.
Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were not all equivalent.
Pope Francis, who has already established a reputation for directness and humility since being elected six months ago, also frankly declared himself to be "a sinner" in the literal sense.
"This is the most accurate definition," he said, when asked what sort of a man he was. "It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
Pope Francis also told how he prays while waiting for a dentist's appointment and that he decided not to move into the grand apostolic apartments in the Vatican, where his predecessor Benedict XVI lived, because he would have felt trapped and out of touch.
The wide-ranging interview was published simultaneously by 16 Jesuit publications around the world at 4pm yesterday, in a dozen languages, including English.
It was conducted and disseminated in the utmost secrecy, with even some Vatican officials unaware of its content, and was hailed as a "scoop" for the Jesuit movement.
The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff in history, offers an insight into his vision for the future of the Catholic Church.
He said the church had been guilty in the past of getting bogged down "in small things... small-minded rules" and that it needed to adopt a new "attitude".
He was elected in March by his fellow cardinals, with a mandate to reform an institution that has been tarnished in recent years by corruption, financial scandal and accusations of intrigue and infighting.
Pope Francis admitted to making mistakes as head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
He disclosed that he had a tendency towards "authoritarianism and (a) quick manner of making decisions".
He had been reprimanded by some Catholics, who felt that he had not spoken out forcefully enough on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
In response, he said he did not see the need to discuss those issues constantly, because he agreed with church doctrine and considered the matter closed.
"It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," Francis said. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods."
He reiterated his determination to reform the Vatican, but said this would not be a quick or easy process.
"Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time," he said. "I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change."
The Pope granted the interview to the Rev Antonio Spadaro, the editor of 'La Civilta Cattolica', a Jesuit journal based in Rome.
It was then translated into different languages for publication around the world. In the UK it was due to be released in full by 'Thinking Faith', the online journal of British Jesuits, at www.thinkingfaith.org.
"The interview and its publication was a very tight operation," said Frances Murphy, the deputy editor of 'Thinking Faith'. "We have kept it very quiet and low-key – but Jesuits are all very excited."
The Pope was asked about the issue of homosexuality – the Catholic Church considers homosexual acts a sin.
He reiterated remarks that he made at the end of his trip to Brazil in July, when he asked "who am I to judge?" (gay people).
Pope Francis also said he had simply reflected the stance of the catechism, which said that gays and lesbians "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity".
By Nick Squires
(© Daily Telegraph, London)