Perspective on the relationships of cohabiting, divorced and gay couples must be more positively viewed by Church, suggest participants in a landmark review of Catholic teaching on the family.
Senior clerics handpicked by Pope Francis to draw conclusions from the discussions within an ongoing Vatican City synod of bishops from all over the world issued a working paper that said many saw "positive aspects" to relationships currently officially regarded as "irregular". Those included same-sex partners, unmarried couples, or civilly married couples in which one or both partners is divorced.
In what one prominent Vatican expert described as "a pastoral earthquake", the clerics suggested in the paper that the Church should reach out to these groups.
"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?" asks the paper, which was produced as a kind of summing-up of a first week of discussions in the Vatican.
It adds: "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."
The report suggests there is no appetite within the Catholic clergy for changing long-established doctrine that holds that homosexuality, sex outside marriage and divorce are fundamentally wrong.
But it also recognizes that the Church needs to find ways to bridge the gap that has opened up between its teaching on these questions and the reality of the modern world.
Theologically, it seeks to achieve this goal via an emphasis on the "principle of graduality" -- which suggests the Church should help the faithful to move towards full conformity with its teaching over time, rather than casting wayward sinners aside.
Bruno Forte, the special secretary of the synod and an ally of the Pope, summed up the predominant mood of pragmatism within the conference by saying: "It is about understanding the full complexity of the reality of families today."
The mid-synod report talks of accepting the reality of civil marriage and cohabitation, saying these unions can reach "a notable level of stability through a public bond" and are often characterized by deep affection, responsibility towards children and resistance to setbacks.
The document steers clear of the hugely controversial issue of whether divorcees who have been remarried should be able to take communion.
They are currently banned from doing so in a stance that critics say makes no sense since murderers who have repented their actions can be given communion, a sacred rite for Catholics. That question has been left open for further examination.
- Conservative backlash -
"In pastoral terms, the document ... represents an earthquake, the 'big one' that hit after months of smaller tremors," wrote prominent Vatican expert John Thavis on his blog.
Thavis added: "Regarding homosexuals, it went so far as to pose the question whether the church could accept and value their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine."
Vatican officials stressed that the reflection on family remained very much "a work in progress" and there were signs of a backlash against the contents of Monday's paper, with some bishops calling for the traditional view of gay relationships as "disordered" to be emphasized and others questions the lack of references to sinful conduct.
But although there is strong resistance to reform, there are also powerful forces pushing an agenda of change.
Francis is understood to want any changes in the practical way the Church handles problems related to the family to be agreed by consensus.
But he has also signaled that he is on the side of reform -- the attitude to homosexuality included in Monday's paper reflects his "who am I to judge?" comment on the issue, made last year.
The synod here is due to wrap up on Sunday and there will be another major conference next year before any conclusions are agreed, most likely in early 2016.