VATICAN CITY — In a marked shift in tone likely to be discussed in parishes around the world, an assembly of Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican released a preliminary document Monday calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced, as well as the children of these less traditional families.
The bishops’ report, released midway through a landmark two-week meeting, does not change Roman Catholic doctrine or teaching,
The report will now be subjected to fierce debate and revision at the assembly.
But it is the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness and mercy.
The 12-page report, written by a committee picked by Francis, says that without abandoning church teaching on the sacrament of marriage, pastors should recognize that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.”
That is a striking departure from traditional Catholic preaching that such couples are “living in sin.”
The report also says that gay people have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” and that some gay couples provide one another “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” as well as “precious support in the life of the partners.”
The document was read aloud to the nearly 200 bishops gathered at the synod, as the assembly is called.
The reading was followed by responses and objections from 41 bishops in the synod hall, a portent of disputes to come.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, the synod’s special secretary, said in a news conference afterward that while the church does not condone gay unions or gay marriage, it must “respect the dignity of every person.”
“The fundamental idea is the centrality of the person independently of sexual orientation,” he said.
The report will now be discussed and modified in the next week by working groups of bishops who will scrutinize each section, and then a final report will be issued after the synod to be disseminated and discussed in churches worldwide over the upcoming year.
There will be a second synod in Rome next October, but in the end, after all the consultation and debate, it is Pope Francis who will ultimately set the course.