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Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press
Pope Francis smiles as he walks alongside Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, left, and Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prior to start an afternoon session of a two-week synod on family issues at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis' emphasis on a church that is merciful rather than moralizing is having a pronounced effect inside a meeting of bishops on family life, with the 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.

It's an age-old concept for the church, but it has been out of favor for the past two pontificates which focused on making clear church teaching on hot-button issues. Francis, though, has said that with doctrine now well-known, the church must now focus on being more welcoming and forgiving.

The concept has been applied to couples who are living together but not married, with priests urged not 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.

"There's the ideal which we love, that we don't want to weaken, but there's the concrete reality of people who sometimes can't yet arrive at the ideal of perfection, but they have the possibility of growing toward a possible good," Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University in Argentina, told reporters Wednesday.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said "there are absolutely valid, important and even holy elements" in families that fall short of the Christian ideal of marriage in the church.