In a preliminary report, released during a Vatican meeting on family life called by Pope Francis, the bishops also said the church must welcome divorcees and recognise the “positive” aspects of civil marriages and even Catholics who cohabitate.
While it does not change church doctrine, the tone of the report on a host of controversial family issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance and understanding rather than condemnation.
It will guide a closed-door debate until a final document is issued on Saturday.
Gay rights groups hailed what they called a “seismic shift” in the church’s attitude toward gays.
“For the LGBT Catholics in the United States and around the world, this new document is a light in the darkness - a dramatic new tone from a church hierarchy that has long denied the very existence of committed and loving gay and lesbian partnerships,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, the biggest LGBT rights organisation in the US.
But some conservative cardinals downplayed the report as insignificant or derided it as unacceptable.
The bishops clearly took into account the views of the pope, whose “Who am I to judge?” comment about gays signalled a new tone of welcome for the church.
Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.
The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony”.
For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question was significant.
The bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table, but acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.
“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,” they said.
The report said the church must grasp the “positive reality of civil weddings” and even cohabitation, with the aim of helping the couple commit eventually to a church wedding.
They also called for a re-reading of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which outlined the church’s opposition to artificial birth control.
The bishops said couples should be unconditionally open to having children, but that the message of Humanae Vitae “underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control”.
Bishops also called for “courageous” new ways to minister to families, especially those “damaged” by divorce.
The document did not take sides in the most divisive issue at the synod, whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment can receive Communion.
Church teaching holds that without an annulment, these Catholics are living in sin and thus ineligible to receive the sacraments.
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