Catholic bishops showed unprecedented openness Monday to accepting the real lives of many Catholics today, saying gays had gifts to offer the church and should be accepted and that there were "positive" aspects to a couple living together without being married.
A two-week meeting of bishops on family issues arrived at its halfway point with a document summarizing the closed-door debate so far. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance, rather than condemnation, with the aim of guiding Catholics toward the ideal of a lasting marriage.
Bishops clearly took into account the views of Pope Francis, whose "Who am I to judge?" comment about gays signalled a new tone of welcome for the church. Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.
The bishops said gays had "gifts and qualities" to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, "accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony."
For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered," even posing the question is significant.
"This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic church speaks of gay people," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. "The Synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did."
The bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table. But it acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.
"Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," they said.
Conservative groups rejected the report as a "betrayal" and even heresy.
"What will Catholics parents now have to tell their children about contraception, cohabiting with partners or living homosexual lifestyles?" asked Maria Madise, co-ordinator of the Voice of the Family, which counts pro-life and conservative groups as members.
"Will those parents now have to tell their children that the Vatican teaches that there are positive and constructive aspects to these mortal sins? This approach destroys grace in souls."
For heterosexuals, the bishops said the church must grasp the "positive reality of civil weddings" and even cohabitation, with the aim of helping the couple commit eventually to a church wedding.
The bishops also called for a re-reading of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that outlined the church's opposition to artificial birth control. The bishops said couples should be unconditionally open to having children, but that the message of Humanae Vitae "underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control."
There has been much talk inside the synod about applying the theological concept of the "law of gradualness" in difficult family situations, including contraception. The concept encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness.
Applying the concept to matters of birth control would be an acknowledgement that most Catholics already use artificial contraception in violation of church teaching. But it would encourage pastors to meet them where they are, and then help them come to understand the full reasoning behind the ban and then adopt it themselves.
Bishops also called for "courageous" new ways to minister to families, especially those "damaged" by divorce. The document didn't take sides in the most divisive issue at the synod, whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment can receive Communion.
Church teaching holds that without an annulment, these Catholics are living in sin and thus ineligible to receive the sacraments.
The document said these Catholics deserve respect and should not be discriminated against, and then laid out the positions of both sides: those who want to maintain the status quo barring them from the sacraments, and those who favour a case-by-case approach, in which the couple undertake a path of penance.
Pope Francis has called for a more merciful approach to these couples, but conservatives have insisted there is no getting around Jesus' words that marriage is indissoluble.
There have been suggestions that the conservatives were being sidelined, if not silenced, behind the synod walls given Francis' known position on the matter.
Significantly, Francis decided at the end of last week to add six perceived progressives to the synod leadership to help prepare the final document after some conservatives were elected to leadership positions.
Filippino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said there had been "ample space" for people to speak their minds.