Flemish Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday issued a document effectively allowing the blessing of same-sex unions, in direct defiance of a ruling against such practices by the Vatican's doctrinal office.
The document published on the website of the Bishops' Conference of Belgium suggested a ritual that included a prayer and a benediction for stable same-sex unions. But it stressed that it was not "what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage".
It said the Church wanted to be "pastorally close to homosexual persons" and be a "welcoming Church that excludes no one."
The ritual would start with prayers and includes a commitment by the two people in front of family and friends to be faithful to each other. It would end with more prayer and what the document called a "benediction".
A Vatican spokesman had no immediate comment.
In March 2021, in response to formal questions from a number of Roman Catholic dioceses on whether the practice of blessing same-sex unions was allowed, the Vatican's doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), ruled that it was not.
At the time, the CDF said its ruling was "not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite" of the sacrament of marriage and the blessing associated with it.
In response to that ruling, Bishop John Bonny of Antwerp said he felt "shame for my Church" and apologised to those he said had been hurt by the "painful and incomprehensible" decision.
Pope Francis has said he is opposed to same-sex marriage in the Church but supports civil union legislation to give same-sex couples legal protection and rights such as inheritance and shared health care.
A spokesman for the bishops, Geert De Kerpel, said their intention was not to defy the Vatican ruling.
"This is first and foremost a positive message," he told Reuters, adding that it conformed with the pope's calls for a more inclusive Church.
The Flemish bishops document said that some Catholic gays remained celibate and that the Church appreciated it. The Church teaches that while homosexual orientation is not sinful, homosexual acts are.
But the document added that "some prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner" and that such a relationship "can also be a source of peace and shared happiness".
The bishops denounced "homophobic violence," and said they wanted to "structurally anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons".
They announced the appointment of Willy Bombeek, a gay Catholic, as an additional staff member to their department for pastoral care of families to oversee care of gay Catholics.
One with similar duties would be appointed to each diocese in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
"I'm proud to belong to the Flemish Church," Bombeek told Reuters. "I hope that religious people in other countries will also get to experience this, and hopefully, this is only the beginning".
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of U.S.-based Catholic LGBTQ group New Ways Ministry, said the move would be a blessing for both the couple and for the Church.
"These prelates recognise that love is love. Love is more important than sexual behaviour, and love is something that the Church should always bless," he said in a statement.