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Swiss bishops reject gay marriages

Switzerland's Catholic Church will not allow same-sex couples to marry

(Keystone Archive)

The Catholic Church in Switzerland has refused to bless gay couples or accept marriages between homosexuals.

However, in an indication of a softening of their stance on homosexuality, the country's bishops apologised for past discrimination against gays.

Gay rights campaigners said they were unimpressed by Thursday's announcement, claiming the Church's views on homosexuals remained "unacceptable".

The Swiss Bishops Conference picked a press conference in Bern to set out its position regarding gay couples and gay priests.

The bishops reiterated their traditional view condemning homosexual acts but said that they did not discriminate against homosexuals themselves.

They said this included allowing someone with "homosexual tendencies" into the priesthood, as long as they remained celibate.

Concerning gay partnerships, the bishops said they supported improved rights for homosexual couples but said that they would not bless gay partnerships or accept same-sex marriages.

Liberal stance

Thursday's announcement was viewed by observers as proof that the Catholic Church in Switzerland has deviated away from the Vatican's hardline stance on homosexuality.

Albert Longchamp, a Jesuit priest and editor of the Swiss Catholic magazine Echo, told swissinfo that the Swiss bishops' position on homosexuality was more liberal than that of Rome.

"This position of the Swiss bishops seems to me more subtle than that of the Vatican," Longchamp told swissinfo.

"For example, although the Swiss bishops condemn homosexual acts, they do not object to homosexual people."

"They also go so far as to admit that a trainee priest can have a homosexual tendencies - on condition that they live in abstinence - and this is totally new."

Longchamp said this was the first time that he had seen such careful language from the Swiss Bishops Conference.

"The Vatican and American church views are more restrictive. However, in my opinion, the Swiss bishops don't run the risk of being reprimanded by the Vatican for this point of view."

Traditional view

The issue of homosexuality is a difficult one for the Swiss Catholic Church, which has three million members - 46 per cent of the population - making it the predominant religion in Switzerland.

And despite shifting the goalposts on Thursday, the bishops maintained that they still stood by the Vatican's condemnation of homosexual acts.

"The biblical position with the condemnation of homosexual acts tries to guarantee the protection of family and the harmony in social and family life in this sense we consider this position is still relevant," Dr Agnell Rickenmann, the general secretary of the Swiss Bishops Conference told swissinfo.

Where Swiss bishops differ from the Vatican is in their relatively liberal attitude to homosexual partnerships.

A fortnight ago voters in Zurich came out in support of an initiative granting gay couples greater equality, although not on the same level as married couples. Similar legislation has already been passed in Geneva.

Supporters have greeted the decisions as a first step towards a national debate on the subject, eventually paving the way for gay marriages.

No gay marriages

But the Swiss Bishops Conference insisted that such a move would be against the sanctity of marriage.

"For us it is important that a legalisation and a non-discrimination of homosexual partners does not signify that such a partnership is exactly the same as a marriage, as a heterosexual couple living together," said Rickenmann.

"A marriage between a woman and a man is still the most important because it includes the aspect of procreation, which is not the only aspect, of course, but is very important."

Rickenmann went on to say that there was another aspect to heterosexual marriages which he thought was missing in gay partnerships: a deep personal relationship and fidelity.

Gay priests

Switzerland's Catholic bishops also veered away from the Vatican on another theme that has been making the news - namely homosexuality and the priesthood.

While Rome categorically denies that a priest could also be homosexual, the bishops said that someone wishing to be a priest or work for the Catholic Church would "not be excluded" if they had homosexual tendencies, so long as they were not acted upon.

"If there is a homosexual tendency in a man or woman there is no further problem as long as these persons are living in abstinence," explained Rickenmann.

"But if those person are not prepared or ready live a such a life we don't think that they are really able to be employed in the church. "

The Swiss gay rights organisation, Pink Cross, said it was far from heartened by the position taken by Switzerland's Catholic bishops - and their apology for past discrimination.

"The bishops have every reason to ask for forgiveness, but homosexuals have no reason to forgive them," said Moel Volken, the organisation's leader.

swissinfo, Isobel Johnson

Key facts

Switzerland's Catholic bishops have said they are in favour of improved rights for homosexual couples.
But they do not want to bless gay couples because they say it is against the sanctity of marriage.
They say a priest can have homosexual tendencies but must not act on them.
They have apologised to gays for any past discrimination.

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