In a move that seemed impossible just a few years ago, Catholic bishops, meeting during a two-week synod in Rome, have written a preliminary document calling for “welcoming homosexual persons” into the Christian community.

While the document, a working document that will likely be revised by the bishops, doesn’t change church doctrine, it is a welcome departure from the condemnation for homosexuals voiced in the past. This is a result of the openness and understanding sought by Pope Francis, who has made it a priority to reach out to the church’s and society’s outcasts.

“This is the start of a change in attitude,” said Frank O’Hara, a member of Catholics for Marriage Equality, a group that campaigned for same-sex marriage in Maine, who attends church every Sunday.

As he sees it, the church is on a journey like that of many individuals — from thinking that gay relationships are unthinkable to knowing someone who is gay and thinking that although their relationship is wrong, it is tolerable to accept and support a friend.

“It is extremely encouraging,” O’Hara said of the bishops’ writings.

In the last decade, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, which voters legalized in Maine in 2012.

“Same-sex marriage is a dangerous sociological experiment that many of us believe will have negative consequences for society as a whole,” former Maine Bishop Richard Malone said in 2009.

In the 58-paragraph document released by the Vatican on Monday, three paragraphs were dedicated to homosexuality; other sections discussed the “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.” It also speaks of greater acceptance for the unmarried and divorced, with a special focus on caring for the children of nontraditional family arrangements.

“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?” the document asks. “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?”

Such language walks the fine line of recognizing the value of gay people without changing church doctrine to officially accommodate same-sex marriage or other lifestyles and practices that are in conflict.

“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,” the document continues. “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.”

These overtures are largely aimed at Europe and the United States, where Catholicism is on the decline and the church is seeking to retain members. A century ago, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics were in Europe. In 2010, less than a quarter were there, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Catholicism in the United States also is in decline. One in 10 American adults is a former Catholic, according to Pew, and nearly a quarter of the Catholics in the U.S. are immigrants.

Maine is the least religious state in the nation, according to a recent census. But Catholicism is still the dominant faith here in the state. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, with 190,106 adherents, had the most members of any denomination in Maine, according to 2010 data compiled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That’s down from 276,000 members in 1980 and 283,000 in 2000.

Like many politicians and courts in the United States, Catholic leadership is catching up to where the church’s membership have led it. Speaking of being welcoming is an important first step in setting aside condemnation and making acceptance a part of church philosophy.