Documents generated by Vatican synods are often dry as dust, their contents predictable well in advance of their drafting. So the buzz accompanying the mid-term report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family underway in Rome was extraordinary in itself.

Pope Francis won’t be officiating same sex marriages any time soon, nor will the church upend its teaching on marriage and divorce. That the synod will fall short of what some would judge the only meaningful change—full acceptance of homosexuals, including the right to marry—doesn’t diminish the significance of what happened this past week. This is an institution, after all, that thinks in terms of millennia and perceives change in terms of centuries.

In the current document, church leaders who in previous exhortations referred to homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered” and who spoke easily of people “living in sin” not only avoided such terminology but dared to write that gays have “gifts and qualities to offer” the church and that the church might look to “the positive values” of unmarried couples. Such language portends more than a change in tone. It warrants the analogy some have made to explosions and earthquakes

What came out Monday is an interim report that will be discussed in local settings during the next year and taken up again in a second session of the synod next year before a final document is issued. The sad reality is that this working document could not have been produced by today's United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The priority of the most vocal U.S. bishops has increasingly been on the culture wars: condemnations of gays and same-sex marriage, a battle against what some perceive as ominous threats to religious liberty; a prolonged fight over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act; and the ongoing political strategy that places opposition to abortion as the premier issue in any election, regardless of what else might constitute a candidate’s record.

The synod document, a concrete reflection of the Francis papacy, in effect takes the weapons out of the hands of the hierarchical culture warriors. One might measure its significance in the pushback by groups who in the past prided themselves on their orthodoxy and adherence to papal and hierarchical teaching. They are in a fury and are not hiding their disappointment and rejection of the synod's thinking. Voice of the Family, which identifies itself as a coalition of 15 international pro-family Catholic groups, termed the document “nothing short of a ‘betrayal’ of Catholic and family values. And the blog Rorate Caeli, an extreme conservative Catholic site, described the document as a “heresy, the homoheresy,” and in contradiction of the Gospel and Catholic tradition.

The reaction against changing Catholic practice, particularly the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, began well before the synod and was engaged not in blogs but in official circles. The conservative publishing house Ignatius Press produced at least three books prior to the synod containing essays and other writings by members of the hierarchy responding to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has advocated a change in church law prohibiting divorced Catholics who have remarried without receiving a church annulment from receiving communion. Kasper is generally viewed  by Vatican watchers as being in line with the thinking of Pope Francis.

Such open dispute among members of the hierarchy was almost unheard of in recent decades and may just be another sign of changing times. For more than 30 years and two papacies, Catholics have been told that there were certain things they could not think about, certain discussions they could not have, certain questions that were forbidden.

This synod—indeed, the whole of Francis’ 19-month papacy—appears to be a reversal of that approach.

What practically results from this document? Perhaps bishops will not be so quick to turn away from their schools the children of gay parents or to fire gays and lesbians involved in ministry because they are living openly with or married to a partner. Perhaps they will consider the “concrete circumstances,” as the document suggests, of people divorced and remarried and welcome them to the communion table. 

A key term in Francis’s papacy from the start has been “mercy.” Application of the law and of   doctrine, he preaches, must be tempered by mercy. In an earlier meditation, he said he wished the church to be “the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.” That is not a recipe for cheap grace. The good life of the Gospel places some extraordinary demands on the believer.

The approach is clearly disorienting, however, to those who believe that the church must be a place where teaching and practice are absolute and immutable, where the dividing line must be clear between those who are in and those who are out.

Such open debate and contentious questions were not well received during the papacies of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Francis has not only allowed it but, in effect, demanded it. His opening charge to the bishops was to speak boldly and listen with humility. He wanted the full debate, and he's getting it.