On Monday, Catholic bishops showed unprecedented openness to accepting the real lives of many Catholics today, saying gays had gifts to offer the church and should be accepted and that there were "positive" aspects to a couple living together without being married.
And while no decisions were announced, the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance, rather than condemnation, with the aim of guiding Catholics toward the ideal of a lasting marriage.
The bishops' 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to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.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 that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered," even posing the question is significant.
"I think what we're seeing is a crack in the ice that we have been waiting for, for a very long time," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group. "It's a sign of a first step."
No Tolerance of DiscriminationChurch teaching holds that gay acts are sinful and a "serious depravity," and that homosexual inclination is "objectively disordered." At the same time, it says homosexuals themselves must be treated with respect and compassion and not suffer discrimination.
"I know scores of people who have left the Catholic Church because of those words," DeBernardo said.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI penned some of the Vatican's key documents on gays when he headed the Vatican's orthodoxy office. A 1986 letter of his to bishops on providing pastoral care to gays insisted that any church program must clearly state "that homosexual activity is immoral."
His 2003 document opposing recognition of same-sex unions made clear that "there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family."
The Vatican's top canon lawyer, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, said Thursday that the Catholic Church would "never" accept gay marriage or even bless a gay union.
Beginning a DialogueDespite that unyielding position, there's no doubting that a shift in tone has occurred.
"With Benedict vanished from the scene, Francis has given signals for bishops to start pastoral work and dialogue," said Michael Brinkschroeder, co-president of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, which represents 42 organizations in 22 countries.
Francis famously said "Who am I to judge?" when asked in 2013 about rumors that a top priestly adviser had a gay lover.
DeBernardo, of New Ways Ministry, said the next step is for gays to be at the table offering their testimony to bishops. No openly gay Catholics have addressed the closed-door synod, but two Catholic heterosexual couples have spoken about experiences of devout Catholics welcoming gays or trying to provide pastoral care for them.
He said he was "euphoric" that some bishops had said language such as "intrinsically disordered" was wholly ineffective in bringing people closer to the church.
"I think the change in language starts a chain reaction: A change in language will bring a change in pastoral practice which will bring about a change in teaching," he said.