Pope Francis' emphasis on a church that is merciful rather than moralizing is having a pronounced effect at a meeting of bishops on family life, with bishops emphasizing that the faithful should be the "best possible" Catholics they can be, even if they're not perfect ones.

Bishops have referred frequently to the theological concept of the "law of gradualness," which encourages the faithful to take one step at a time in the search for holiness.

The concept has been applied to couples who are living together but not married, with priests urged not to condemn them but rather help them see how marriage in the church can deepen their bond.

Cardinal Peter Erdo, a top synod organizer, said the concept should even be applied to married couples concerning artificial contraception.