Pope Francis attends a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican on Monday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

A year ago, Pope Francis stunned the world by talking about gay men and lesbians and their relationships with the church with unheard-of compassion, respect and openness. But those were just the musings of a new pontiff in a magazine interview. Not the stuff of church policy. That’s why what was said about gay people in the first draft of the document on family by the Synod of Bishops gathering in Rome is being called “an earthquake.”

One sentence — “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” — sets the tone from a church hierarchy known for its harsh and negative judgment of gay men and lesbians. There were nods to unions between committed same-sex couples and the children in families with same-sex parents, even though they make a point of saying such unions “cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.” I found interesting the use of “sexual orientation” instead of the sneering “sexual preference” favored by many of faith who firmly and falsely believe that being gay is a choice. What was more startling about the Synod draft was the word not used at all in relation to homosexuals or homosexuality: sin.

Welcoming homosexual persons

50.        Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: 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?

51.        The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.

52.        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. 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.

As John Thavis of the “Decoding the Vatican” blog points out, there is already push-back from some of the bishops of the synod. There also is a translation issue. And we all need to keep in mind that we’re swooning over a draft document. Still, from the moment of his elevation, Pope Francis signaled a new way of thinking and talking about gay men and lesbians and their place in the church. He sparked a change that will take time to realize and will be incredible to watch.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj