In his first interview with a female journalist since his election to the spiritual leadership of the world's 1.2 billion baptised Catholics, Pope Francis dodged a string of questions about whether he intended raising the status of women in his church and made a joke about women being "taken from a rib".
The pope said women were "the most beautiful thing God has made". And he added: "Theology cannot be done without this feminine touch."
He agreed not enough was said about women and promised that steps were being taken to remedy the situation.
But when his interviewer, the Vatican correspondent of the Rome daily Il Messaggero, Franca Giansoldati, asked him whether he could detect an underlying misogyny in the Catholic church, Francis replied: "The fact is that woman was taken from a rib." Giansoldati wrote that he then laughed "heartily" before saying: "I'm joking. That was a joke."
The 77-year-old pontiff went on: "The issue of women needs to be gone into in more depth, otherwise you can't understand the church itself." But did he envisage, say, appointing a woman to head a Vatican department?
"Well," replied the pope cryptically. "Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers."
In a conversation that highlighted both his theologically conservative side and his economically radical one, Francis returned to his argument that people should have children rather than pets, even if the task was more demanding. "The emotional relationship with animals is easier, more programmable," he said. "An animal is not free whereas having a child is a complex matter."
Francis was also invited to respond to comments by the Economist's blogger on religion who said that, in another interview, he had taken "an ultra-radical line", following Lenin "in his diagnosis of capitalism and imperialism as the main reason why world war broke out a century ago." The pope replied: "All I will say is that the communists stole our colours. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the centre of the gospels. The poor are at the centre of the gospels."