After a Vatican official stated that the Church could support same-sex civil unions, a Swiss theologian is saying that if they are equated with marriage these unions discriminate against married heterosexual couples.

"Besides containing an erroneous moral message, it actually means to objectively discriminate against married people, who intentionally have engaged in a union ordered towards the task of the transmission of human life, accepting all the burdens and responsibilities of this task," said Swiss theologian Father Martin Rhonheimer.

"Conferring legal equality to same-sex unions signifies to publicly establish, in the law system, the principle of dissociation of sexuality and procreation," he explained in an April 22 telephone interview with CNA.

His comments come after Archbishop Piero Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, expressed his openness to same-sex civil unions.

"In these discussions, it is necessary, for example, to recognize the union of people of the same sex, because there are many couples who suffer because their civil rights are not recognized,"  he said on April 20 in an interview with Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion.

"What cannot be recognized is that that couple be a marriage," said Archbishop Marini.

A second Vatican official, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who spoke on the subject in a March 27 news conference, was misquoted by the press to make it seem he favored it.

Archbishop Paglia, the head of the Pontifical Council of the Family, said that the Church is opposed to anything that treats other unions as equivalent to marriage between a man and a woman, but that it could accept "private law solutions" for protecting people's rights.

In a Vatican press conference on Feb. 4, he said that there are "several kinds of cohabitation forms that do not constitute a family" and that their number is increasing.

The archbishop suggested that countries could find "private law solutions" to help people living in non-matrimonial relations, to "prevent injustice and make their life easier."

But Archbishop Paglia persisted in reaffirming that it is society's responsibility to preserve the unique value of marriage.

Fr. Rhonheimer, who teaches political philosophy and ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said accepting same-sex civil unions is equating them with marriage, which "by its very nature is a union between a man and a woman."

But he does not exclude private law solutions as mentioned by Archbishop Paglia, protecting same-sex couples' civil rights and facilitating, for example, mutual care in case of illness and old age, or adaptations in the field of inheritance law.  

"When equating homosexual unions to marriage, however, the legal system starts including a principle which in fact transforms the nature of marriage as a social and legal institution," Fr. Rhonheimer stated.

"Besides being discriminating against those who bear considerable sacrifices in raising children and contribute in a most essential and irreplaceable way to the common good of society over time, it also has non-predictable long term consequences for the entire legal and social system," he added.

He explained that approving same-sex unions could only be consistently argued for by assuming there is no moral relevant link between sexuality and procreation, an idea which is the legacy of the "sexual revolution" of the second half of the 20th century having disastrous effects on the societies of Western countries.

"Any attempt of proving the equality, in social and political terms, of heterosexual and homosexual unions is vain, simply because homosexual unions are by their very nature non-procreative," Fr. Rhonheimer said.

According to the Swiss professor, the Church teaches that homosexual orientation is a disorder, but people who experience that disorder should not be blamed or somehow seen as guilty for having it.

"On the other hand, the Church teaches that homosexual acts are gravely and intrinsically sinful and that therefore persons with homosexual orientation should abstain from sexual acts, being continent (equal to unmarried people)," he said.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document in June 2003 which stated that "respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

The document, titled "Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons," says the common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family.

"Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity," the document says.