The Vatican on Tuesday launched an unprecedented worldwide consultation on the new realities of family life including gay marriage as part of Pope Francis's efforts to reform the Catholic Church.
A questionnaire has been sent to bishops around the world asking them for detailed information about the "many new situations requiring the Church's attention and pastoral care".
"Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation... to same-sex unions," it said.
The 39 questions are unusual because of their non-judgemental, practical nature in what could be a signal of greater openness and increased pastoral care regardless of a believer's background.
Referring to gay couples, one questions asks: "What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?"
"In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?"
On remarried divorcees, who under the current rules are not allowed to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church, the questionnaire asks: "Do they feel marginalised or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?"
On divorce and separated couples in general, it asks: "How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programmes?"
The initiative is part of preparations for a synod of bishops next year and another in 2015 that the Vatican said will formulate "working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family".
Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the synod of bishops, told reporters that the meeting's theme "reflects very well the pastoral zeal with which the Holy Father wishes to approach the proclamation of the Gospel to the family in today's world".
He said the consultation also showed Francis, who has said the Catholic Church is too "Vatican-centric", wanted more "collegiality".
Cardinal Peter Erdo, president of the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe, referred in particular to the increase in cohabiting Catholic couples who do not intend to marry, saying "the phenomenon requires a deepened reflection."
Pope Francis has shown a more open style since being elected in March and a desire to bring the Catholic Church more in touch with the lives of ordinary people, although experts say he is unlikely to bring about major changes in doctrine.
Francis has said priests should baptise children even when the parents are not married and, when asked recently about his views on gays, he replied: "If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"