Pope Francis Divorce
Pope Francis is leading the way with the Church's attitude towards gay people Reuters

A new Vatican document released after a week of key meetings between Pope Francis and 200 Catholic bishops has signalled a seismic shift on the Church's attitude towards homosexuals, saying they have "gifts and qualities to offer" the Christian community.

The Relatio Post Disceptionem, read to the assembly called the "synod" in the presence of Pope Francis, proposes a modern interpretation of "irregular" families such as co-habiting or homosexual couples, paving the way for a less judgmental and lenient attitude towards them.

Under previous popes, the Church harshly condemned gay couples as "intrinsically disordered". Just before his election as Pope Benedict, the then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger penned one of the Church's most important documents condemning homosexuality while head of the Vatican's doctrinal department.

While remarking that the unions between people of the same sex "cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman", the document urges avoiding using any language or behaviour that might make homosexual feel discriminated against.

"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," it said. "Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

The document is a starting point and work in progress for further reflection among Catholics ahead of the more definitive synod next year. The meeting with 200 bishops was summoned by Pope Francis on the theme of family.

Distancing himself from the rigid doctrinal attitude of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has adopted a merciful tone toward homosexuals. Last year he said: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The meeting also called on pastors to recognise the "positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation".

Ahead of the synod, a row on remarried couples erupted between the Argentine pontiff and five cardinals who were against reforming attitudes to divorce.

Francis broke with tradition by marrying 20 couples from different social belongings at the Vatican's Saint Peter's Basilica who had been married before, some cohabiting in "sin" - according to the Church rules - and even one single mother.

Working for a more merciful church, the 77-year-old Pope stirred the stagnant waters of a centuries-old institution, claiming the Church must "accompany... not condemn" those who suffer a marriage break-up.

But his controversial stance has met the tough opposition of five conservative cardinals who are about to publish a book that denies the pontiff's vision of a more inclusive and compassionate Church.