A Swiss offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church is to become the country's first officially recognised church to bless same-sex couples on a nationwide basis.This content was published on June 17, 2006 - 10:46
The move has been welcomed by the gay rights group, Pink Cross, but the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference is questioning whether it is merely a publicity stunt to attract new members.
The Old Catholic Church, which parted ways with Rome in 1870, voted at its national synod to offer gay congregation members the possibility of a church blessing. In June last year Swiss voters approved a new law allowing gay couples to register their partnerships.
"It's a blessing for couples – not only homosexual or lesbian – but for all sorts of relationships, for instance older people who don't want to marry again," Maja Weyermann, spokeswoman for the 14,000-strong Old Catholics, told swissinfo.
The decision to bless same-sex couples follows a report by the Old Catholic Church's commission on "Homosexuality and the Church". In it, the commission makes it clear that gays should have the same rights within the church and that the church should respond to their needs.
"The traditional view of many churches is that homosexuality is something that does not exist within the Church. Homosexual behaviour is still condemned by many churches around the world," said Weyermann.
"We see homosexuality as something that exists in nature and human beings, and we must accept it as given by God."
Old Catholics stress that the blessing for same-sex couples will be distinct from the traditional marriage sacrament. Even so, they are expecting a rough ride from other churches in Switzerland.
"I don't think we will be isolated but there will be some distance between us and other churches for a time," said Weyermann.
According to Weyermann, Old Catholics faced opposition from other churches when they decided to ordain women priests back in 2000.
Jean-Paul Guisan, spokesman for Pink Cross, welcomed the fact that "a descendant of the Catholic Church" had adopted a positive view of gay relationships.
"It is very encouraging, although it is only a very small church," said Guisan, who is also the founder of a gay Christian group in Geneva. "But it is interesting to see that in Switzerland there are churches that are prepared to recognise gay partnerships."
He pointed out that many churches continued to treat gays as second-class citizens, even though he said there was no distinction in the eyes of God.
Mario Galgano, spokesman for the Swiss Bishops Conference, made it clear that there were "big differences" between Roman Catholics and Old Catholics, and questioned what really lay behind the decision to offer blessings to gay couples.
"I think they have done this because in our society – even among Catholics – people are more tolerant towards homosexuals," said Galgano. "I hope that they have not done it simply to make publicity for their church. If this is the case, I don't think they will have much success."
The Old Catholic Church denied that the move was designed to boost its profile.
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont
In June last year gay couples in Switzerland won the right to register their partnerships, after voters approved a law giving them some of the rights enjoyed by married couples.
The new law means gay couples will have the same pension, inheritance and tax rights and obligations. But they will not be allowed to adopt children or have access to fertility treatment.
Protestant churches in some cantons also bless gay couples but this is not done on a nationwide basis.
Gay couples cannot receive the sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church because of its strict definition of matrimony between a man and a woman.
The Old Catholic Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1870, after some priests did not accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility.
It has around 14,000 members in Switzerland.