By PHILIP PULLELLA
(Reuters) - In a dramatic shift in tone, a Vatican document said on Monday that homosexuals had "gifts and qualities to offer" and asked if Catholicism could accept gays and recognize positive aspects of same-sex couples.
The document, prepared after a week of discussions at an assembly of 200 bishops on the family, said the Church should challenge itself to find "a fraternal space" for homosexuals without compromising Catholic doctrine on family and matrimony.
While the text did not signal any change in the Church's condemnation of homosexual acts or gay marriage, it used less judgmental and more compassionate language than that seen in Vatican statements prior to the 2013 election of Pope Francis.
"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home," said the document, known by its Latin name "relatio".
"Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?" it asked.
John Thavis, Vatican expert and author of the bestselling 2013 book "The Vatican Diaries", called the report "an earthquake" in the Church's attitude towards gays.
"The document clearly reflects Pope Francis' desire to adopt a more merciful pastoral approach on marriage and family issues," he said.
London-based QUEST, one of the oldest Catholic gay rights groups, said in a statement that parts of the synod document "represent 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."
The Vatican document will be the basis for discussion for the second and final week of the bishops' assembly, known as a synod. It will also serve for further reflection among Catholics around the world ahead of another, definitive synod next year.
A number of participants at the closed-door gathering have said the Church should tone down its condemnatory language when referring to gay couples and avoid phrases such as "intrinsically disordered" when speaking of homosexuals.
That was the phrase used by former Pope Benedict in a document written before his election, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Vatican's doctrinal department.
The language and tone of Monday's document, read to the assembly in the presence of Pope Francis, appeared to show that the advocates of a more merciful tone toward homosexuals and Catholics in so-called "irregular situations" had prevailed.
It said that the 1.2 billion-member Church should see the development of its position on homosexuals as "an important educational challenge" for the global institution.
While the Church continued to affirm that gay unions "cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman", it should recognize that there could be positive aspects to relationships in same-sex couples.
"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 document said.
Pope Francis has said the Church must be more compassionate with homosexuals, saying last year: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge."
The Church teaches that while homosexual tendencies are not sinful, homosexual acts are. Elizabeth Saint-Guily, spokeswoman for David and Jonathan, a gay Christian association in France, said the group had received news of the synod document "with joy," even though not all of the group's expectations had not been met. "The fact that we are even on the agenda is amazing ...," she said.