The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Pope: Church at risk if stance on gays and abortion are not balanced
Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church's moral edifice might "fall like a house of cards" if it does not balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make the church 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 remarkably candid and lengthy interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine. It was published simultaneously in other Jesuit journals, including America magazine in the US.
In the 12,000-word article, Francis expanded on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledged some of his own faults. But his vision of what the church should be stood out, as it contrasted sharply with many of the priorities of his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
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.
"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 has not enforced church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
Francis acknowledged he had been "reprimanded", but said it was "not necessary to talk about these issues all the time".