The pontiff ducked a ruling on whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion, instead encouraging priests to show "pastoral discernment" in the "complicated" situations of their parishioners.
His long awaited apostolic exhortation titled "Amoris Laetitia," which is Latin for "The Joy of Love" suggests the church should focus less on how it treats divorcees and more on how to help people remain in loving relationships despite modern challenges such as longer life spans and "rampant individualism."
Remarried worshippers "are not excommunicated" and they should not be treated as such, he explained.
The nine-chapter, 325-paragraph proclamation does not change church doctrine, but emphasizes individual conscience over theological dogma and urged priests to be compassionate and inclusive.
"The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications."
"The tone is pastoral and inspirational, not nagging or judgmental," said Father Thomas Reese, "Author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church."
Pope Francis wrote: "I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness."
He also urges an end to "unjust discrimination" against homosexuals but firmly rejects gay marriage, saying: "There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family."
Presently, divorcees who remarry can only receive Communion after their previous marriage has been annulled by the church as well as by the state. Francis suggests rigid application of church rules has been unhelpful.
Pope Francis reiterates that "divorce is evil" but says Catholics should seek "understanding in the face of exceptional situations."
"Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown."
He also says sex education is more important than ever "in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialized and impoverished," and warns against the "onslaught of new ideas and suggestions, the flood of pornography and the overload of stimuli that can deform sexuality."