Call it a preliminary document at a preliminary synod -- and it is -- but it sets a tone that will be difficult to reverse. One longtime Vatican correspondent calls it a "pastoral earthquake."
It's the most dramatic example yet of Roman Catholic bishops doing what Pope Francis has been doing individually for the past year and a half: Making dramatically conciliatory statements in the pastoral approach to people whom the church has long deemed as living in sin.
Good things can happen in same-sex relationships, for example. And people living together outside of marriage, or at least a church marriage, often show genuine love for each other and their children and share "authentic family values" even while not living up to church ideals.
Moreover, the church should "accompany" people dealing with real life, not just teaching an abstract ideal.
In other words, don't be thrown by the modest title of this document, called "Relatio post disceptationem." It's a summary of the first week of discussions of a select group of bishops and some lay people at an "Extraordinary (not regularly scheduled) Synod" on family matters. After a week of discussions about the widespread dissent from church teachings among Catholics, or at least the disparities between their lives and church teachings, the document calls for pastoral care first, judgment later.
1. No, the bishops aren't proposing changing doctrine.
2. This is only the first of two synods on the family, with an "ordinary" one next year.
3. Nothing changes until the pope signs off on it.
4. The document pays particular tribute to perhaps the most unpopular of modern encyclicals, "Humanae Vitae," decrying artificial birth control and citing the impact of a declining birth rate in some societies.
But it's clear in far more than just the famous "Who am I to judge" quote that Francis favors a more pastoral approach, and the bishops are following suit, saying the church needs to walk with people in their concrete circumstances.
Even look at some of the section headings: "Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation." "Welcoming homosexual persons."
"Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm."
"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? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
"... 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. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority."
"Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God."