Bishops and cardinals attend a synod of bishops led by Pope Francis in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican, Oct. 6, 2014. Francis opened the Roman Catholic assembly that will discuss marriage, gay couples, birth control and other moral issues, telling his bishops to speak frankly and not be afraid of upsetting him. Reuters

A Catholic bishop in Belgium has called for ecclesiastical recognition of same-sex couples within the Roman Catholic Church. Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, shared his thoughts in an interview for De Morgen, a Belgian newspaper, on Dec. 27.

“Indeed, we need to seek a formal recognition of the kind of relationship that exists between many gay and lesbian couples,” Bonny said according to the National Catholic Reporter. “Does that recognition have to be a sacramental marriage? Perhaps the church could much better reflect on a diversity of forms of relationships. One has the same kind of discussion about civil marriages. In Belgium the same model (for civil marriages) exists for man-woman relations as well as for same-sex relations.”

He noted, "The intrinsic values are more important to me than the institutional question. The Christian ethic is based on lasting relationships where exclusivity, loyalty and care are central to each other."

While other Catholic bishops, cardinals and the pope have expressed support for same-sex couples before, Bonny is the first known bishop to make an explicit statement for gay couples to receive the same recognition in the church as their heterosexual counterparts.

“Bishop Bonny’s statements are the first time a Catholic bishop has explicitly called for ecclesiastical recognition of same-gender couples,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said in a statement. “Bishop Bonny’s statements will have a profound effect on this discussion, because he is raising an idea which has too long been suppressed but which many in the Church have desired.”

Bonny’s stance toward the issue has been known for some time. In September, ahead of the synod of bishops in Rome, Bonny published a 22-page letter in which he described a gap between “the moral teachings of the church and the moral insights of the faithful.” He pointed to modern forms of the family including divorced, remarried and same-sex couples.

According to professor Rik Torfs, canon law expert and rector of the Catholic University of Leuven, Bonny’s comments are weighty. "Do not underestimate the significance of this," Torfs told the National Catholic Reporter. "Bonny advocates a change from principles long held as unshakable, something no bishop could have done under the dogmatic pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI."