Marisol Bello and Eric Lyman, USA TODAY
ROME - His first order of business as pope was to pay his hotel bill and move into a Vatican guest house instead of the sprawling papal apartments.
Then Pope Francis, who has made helping the poor a central tenet of his priesthood, asked priests and nuns not to drive flashy cars. His car is a Ford Focus.
Two months ago, there was controversy in and outside the church, which considers homosexuality a sin, when he remarked to reporters, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Now, this most unorthodox of popes is making waves again with his most comprehensive interview since he was elected to the Holy See in March, displaying the blunt language and straightforward style that has garnered him legions of fans and critics alike.
The 12,000-word interview, released Thursday in 16 Jesuit magazines worldwide, touched on many of the most polarizing topics of the day: the place of gays and women in the church, abortion, and issues of faith and religious doubt.
In the interview, Francis says the church has been too focused on abortion, gay marriage and contraception and suggests finding a "new balance" to deliver the Roman Catholic message.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," Francis says. "This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. 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."
The pope breaks no new ground on doctrine, but the remarks underscore his progressive attitude six months into his papacy, showing a desire to cement the perception of the Catholic Church as a place of healing and mercy, not judgment and finger-pointing, theologians say.
"He wants to change people's perception of the church's moral teaching," says Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He says it was striking that Francis compared the church to a field hospital, a spiritual place for healing in the face of today's moral and social dilemmas.
Catholics, even conservative ones, say the interview further firms up his place as the "people's pope," says Judie Brown, president and co-founder of the American Life League, a Catholic organization that works against abortion. "He's saying that as Catholics we need to live our faith instead of beating people over the head with it."
However, she disagrees with the idea expressed by Francis that priests and bishops should speak less about social issues, such as abortion. If anything, she says, they are not speaking enough about those issues.
What needs to change is how church leaders and members talk about them, she says. "We should do it with love and charity instead of with a hammer."
Vatican watchers say the pope's most groundbreaking statements in the interview were on nuanced issues of limited interest to most Catholics.
"There are some important statements in that he slams the roman curia as being too orthodox and said he wants to revive the primacy of the papacy, among other topics," says Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Catholic publication The Tablet in the United Kingdom. "But what gets most of the attention is the way he addresses these hot-button topics in his own particular way."
Mickens says just the fact that the pope conducted an interview for a publication that is available freely is significant because it shows his desire to reach everyone.
"To me, the key issue is that the pope gave a long and wide-ranging interview for a publication, not a book," he says. " Pope Benedict never did that; it was always for a book that people had to pay for."
Francis says the church has become "obsessed" with issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and that if someone claims answers on issues of faith, they are "a false prophet."
"We have to find a new balance," the pope says. "If not, even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards."
The interviews were conducted in Italian over the course of three sittings last month in the pope's modest Vatican apartment with Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit like Francis who is the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit publication. The pope reviewed the text of the interviews before they were translated.
Although Francis has not broken with previous teachings on many key issues, his humble manner and ease of explaining difficult theological issues in laymen's terms have met with strong responses among Catholics, even lapsed Catholics, and other Christians.
"For my whole adult life, I have considered myself a lapsed Catholic," says Alessandro Di Cristofaro, a 44-year-old university lecturer in ancient history in Rome. "But when I hear the pope speak, it draws me back to the church like when I was a child. I have even gone back to Mass a few times in recent weeks."
Anna Maria di Pietroantonio, 39, a Rome health care worker, agrees.
"When I speak to my friends about it, we all agree it feels like a friendly parish priest who somehow became pope," she says.
Others see Francis as moving away from Biblical teachings. Jason Clendenen, an evangelical Christian and church administrator in California who expressed dismay on Twitter with the pope's interview, says Francis is shrinking away from commenting on sinful behavior. He says Francis seems too accepting of sinners such as gays and lesbians.
"When we (believers) see sinful behavior that the Bible calls evil being called good, it should stir us to respond," Clendenen says.
But the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people, issued a statement saying, "Pope Francis has pressed the reset button on the Roman Catholic Church's treatment of LGBT people, rolling back a years-long campaign at the highest levels of the church to oppose any measure of dignity or equality."
Pecknold, the Catholic University theologian, says Frances engenders strong feelings from both sides of an issue, because he is prone to big, dramatic gestures that can be interpreted many ways.
He says, "Pope Francis makes simple, dramatic gestures that invite people to talk and think."
Bello reported from McLean, Va.