An Italian newspaper has quoted Pope Francis as promising what are termed "solutions" to the issue of mandatory priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.

However, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the reports on the possibility of priests being allowed to marry did not correspond to what the pope actually said to La Repubblica newspaper.

"This is not at all an interview in the normal sense of the word," he said, accusing the newspaper of "manipulating ingenuous readers".

The interview was the third in a series with the 90-year-old founder of the La Repubblica daily, Eugenio Scalfari, a famous journalist and known atheist.

Asked whether priests might one day be allowed to marry, Francis pointed out that celibacy was instituted "900 years after Our Lord's death" and that clerics can marry in some Eastern Churches under Vatican tutelage.

"There definitely is a problem but it is not a major one. This needs time but there are solutions and I will find them," the pontiff said, without giving further details.

The Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland welcomed the pope's reported willingness to discuss whether priests should be allow to marry and whether married men should be ordained.

In an interview with RTÉ News, spokesman Fr Seamus Ahearne said the pope's words were important for the spreading of the word of God because very many Irish priests were now at or beyond retirement age and there had been a steep decline in ordinations.

Earlier this month, the Irish bishops turned down a request by the Association for a reversal of the mandatory celibacy law.

Fr Ahearne said Pope Francis' remarks were "a breath of fresh air".