Catholic bishops said Tuesday that they remain fundamentally opposed to homosexual relationships, tempering the message of a landmark Vatican report calling for a more positive approach to gay believers.
Amid signs of a conservative backlash against the reform agenda being pushed by Vatican liberals supported by Pope Francis, bishops attending a special synod on the family called for "appropriate prudence" in the signals sent to the gay community.
This was necessary, they said, "so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the Church is not created," according to a summary of the latest discussions released by the Vatican.
The warning shot came a day after a preliminary report on the synod's work made waves around the world by noting that "homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community" and suggesting the Church should reach out to them.
In a move that appeared to reflect misgivings over how that message has been interpreted, the Vatican's press office on Tuesday issued a statement downplaying the significance of the mid-synod report, emphasising it was only a working paper which had been given an importance it did not merit.
Whatever its final significance, the tone of the report, with its emphasis on the need for both mercy and realism on the part of the Church, clearly reflects Francis's own "Who am I to judge?" thinking on the issue.
But it could scarcely be further removed from official Church teaching, which maintains that same-sex relationships are "intrinsically disordered" and counsels gay believers to refrain from sexual relations.
The synod discussions are being held behind closed doors and it is difficult to assess the real extent of divisions over this and other contentious issues such as the treatment of cohabiting and divorced believers.
- 'Astonishingly new language' -
Vatican watchers say there is no question of basic doctrine being amended or the church embracing or even tolerating the global trend towards gay marriage.
But the shift of tone, hailed as a "pastoral earthquake" by one expert, has been warmly welcomed by gay Christian groups around the world.
American campaign group DignityUSA welcomed the "unexpected positive signs" emerging from the synod and the "astonishingly new" language they were couched in.
Its Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke said: "This document contains the first positive statement ever from the Vatican on same-sex relationships. That's very significant."
"It's huge" added Jean-Louis Lecouffe, a spokesman for French Gay Christian group David and Jonathan. "Pope Francis's arrival marked a major advance. Now the individual is being put before pure and rigid dogma."
Sources in the Holy See told AFP that a number of African bishops had been sharply critical of the prominence given to the issue of homosexuality in Monday's report, angrily pointing out that it had been addressed in only six interventions in a total of 180 over the first week of the synod.
Such reservations were acknowledged in the latest Vatican update on the debates, which notes that participants underlined the virtual absence of the word "sin" from the mid-term report.
The bishops also called for further reflection on the theological underpinning of the opening up to the gay community -- the so-called "principle of graduality" which provides for the acceptance of individuals living in irregular, or sinful, situations while the Church works with them to bring them into conformity with its rules over time.
The synod is due to wrap up on Sunday and there will be another gathering of bishops and lay Catholics in October 2015 before Francis announces the conclusions, most likely in early 2016.
The Argentinian pontiff holds most of the cards as he has the power to push through change.
But he is described by aides as naturally collegiate and has made it clear he wants the broadest consensus possible for reforms aimed at closing the gap between church teaching and the way many believers live their lives.