Germany's Roman Catholic Church, an influential voice for reforms prompted by Pope Francis, has decided lay Catholic employees who divorce and remarry or form gay civil unions should no longer automatically lose their jobs.
Catholic bishops have voted to adjust Church labour law "to the multiple changes in legal practice, legislation and society" so employee lifestyles should not affect their status in the country's many Catholic schools, hospitals and social services.
The change came as the worldwide Catholic Church debates loosening its traditional rejection of remarriage after a divorce and of gay sex, reforms for which German bishops and theologians have become prominent spokesmen.
"The new rule opens the way for decisions that do justice to the situations people live in," Alois Glueck, head of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics, said after the decision on new labour guidelines was announced on Tuesday.
Over two-thirds of Germany's 27 dioceses voted for the change, a Church spokesman said, indicating some opposition.
There is no worldwide Catholic policy on lay employees. German law allows churches to have their own labour rules that can override national guidelines.
But German courts have begun limiting the scope of Church labour laws and public opinion reacts badly when a Catholic hospital's head doctor is fired for remarrying or a teacher is sacked after her lesbian union is discovered.
Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the bishops conference and a senior adviser to Pope Francis, has been a leading proponent of making the Church more open to modern lifestyles that its doctrine officially rejects.
A worldwide synod of bishops at the Vatican last October was split on how flexible the Church should be in welcoming openly gay or divorced and remarried Catholics. A follow-up synod is due this October, with its result in doubt as debate continues.
Cologne Cardinal Rainer Woelki, the Francis-style pastor the pope appointed to Germany's richest diocese, said the labour law did not negate official Church teaching that marriage is indissoluble, but brought it into line with actual practice.
"People who divorce and remarry are rarely fired," he told the KNA news agency. "The point is to limit the consequences of remarriage or a same-sex union to the most serious cases [that would] compromise the Church's integrity and credibility."
Passages in the new version of Church labour law say that publicly advocating abortion or race hate, or officially quitting the Church, would be a "grave breach of loyalty" that could lead to an employee being fired.