The Catholic church could be moving to accept gay members and even acknowledge positive aspects of same-sex partnerships following a bishops’ meeting.
A document released by the Vatican on Monday said “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and asked how that could be balanced with doctrine.
Roman Catholic gay rights groups around the world hailed the paper as a breakthrough, but conservatives called it a betrayal of traditional family values.
Known as the “relatio post disceptationem”, the document detailed discussions by 200 senior bishops on the Church’s treatment of LGBT people.
It said: “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?”
The document said the question warranted “serious reflection” on how to educate people on the Roman Catholic position on sex and confirmed that the Church cannot consider gay marriage “on the same footing” as heterosexual partnerships.
“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,” it added.
“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.”
It did not signal a change in the Church’s condemnation of gay sex or marriage but used more balanced language than seen under Pope Francis’ predecessors.
In pictures: 'The many popes of Pope Francis'
In pictures: 'The many popes of Pope Francis'
1/12 The Pro-Gay Pope
In just a year, Pope Francis has managed to change the public perception of the Catholic Church, and the stance it takes on civil issues, like gay rights. Despite originally protesting the legalisation of gay marriage in his native Argentina some years ago, he told reporters this year: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”
2/12 The Rebel Pope
No other Pope has urged a shake-up of the Catholic Church quite like Pope Francis, a true rebel of the dioceses. Who, incidentally, used to be a night club bouncer.
3/12 The Graffiti Pope
Pope Francis become... SUPER POPE in this Vatican-approved street art. But was he happy with the reference to the fictional DC comic character?"To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person," he said. So, that's a no, then.
4/12 The Biker Pope
Yes, the Pope used to own a Harley Davidson. And yes, he auctioned it off this year and donated the proceeds to a charity that feeds the hungry in Rome. Very Papal.
5/12 The ‘Blue’ Pope
Dropping the 'F' bomb during Sunday service? Classic Pope Francis. Sadly, down to a Spanish-speaking slip of the Italian language rather than pure bad-assery.
6/12 The ‘Because I’m Worth It’ Pope
That awkward moment when your Papal hat blows off, forcing your barnet into Sesame Street-like spikes. Pope Francis has been there.
7/12 The Chocolate Pope
Imagine the Pope's delight (horror?) when he was presented with a giant chocolate replica of himself outside the Vatican by by students on a chocolatier course at the Accademia of Maestri Cioccolatieri, near Venice.
8/12 The Rock Star pope
The one and only religious leader ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? Introducing... Pope Francis.
9/12 The People’s Pope
His U-turn attitude towards sexuality won him Time magazine's coveted Person of the Year accolade, and the cover of gay rights magazine The Advocate.
10/12 The Merchandise Pope
Thongs, mugs, onesies, earrings and even a baby mobile adorned with decapitated Pope heads, the 'Francis Effect' has seen sales of Papal merchandise soar by 200% over the last year.
11/12 The Fashion Pope
The only Pope, as far as we're aware, to be compared to fashion royalty (Karl Lagerfeld. Yes way.) and win Esquire's Most Stylish Man of 2013 award, too.
12/12 The Modern Pope
Let it be said, Pope Francis knows a thing or two about social media. He might be a way off 'doing a Dalai' and opting for Instagram, but he's not above posing for the odd 'Selfie' on Twitter.
While Pope Benedict was serving as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal department, he called gay people “intrinsically disordered” and there has since been an apparent effort by the Church to tone down condemnatory language.
Pope Francis has previously said the Church must be more compassionate towards the LGBT community, saying last year: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Quest, a London-based Catholic gay rights group, called parts of the relatio “a breakthrough in that they acknowledge that such unions have an intrinsic goodness and constitute a valuable contribution to wider society and the common good.”
But John Smeaton, co-founder of the socially conservative Catholic group Voice of the Family, called it “one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history”.
“Those who are controlling the synod have betrayed Catholic parents worldwide,” he added.
The document also discussed non-religious marriages and cohabitation between straight couples, saying the Church must recognise the modern reality while “clearly presenting the ideal” of Catholic marriage.
It will be the basis for discussion for the second and final week of the bishops' assembly, known as a synod, which has been focusing on the family and controversial issues including abortion, contraception and divorce.
Additional reporting by Reuters