Pope Benedict XVI's top official on family policy has opened up to the possibility of legal rights for gay civil unions, although he also stressed that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
The remarks by Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family, to a Vatican press conference on Monday were quoted in the Italian press on Tuesday.
"Marriage is a clear legal dimension. There are then multiple other types of non-family cohabitation for which solutions should be found in terms of individual law and in my view also in terms of property law," Paglia said.
"I think this is a terrain that politicians should begin to approach," said the archbishop, adding that legal rights for non-traditional families would "prevent injustice against the weakest".
"This seems an important path to pursue," he said.
The Italian prelate also spoke out against homophobia in parts of the Middle East and Africa, condemning countries where being gay is a crime.
"This should be fought against," he said.
Gay rights activists gave mixed reactions to his comments, which came as the British and French parliaments debate laws to legalise gay marriage that have stirred unease in religious communities.
"For the first time a senior prelate recognises that there should be rights also for gay couples and that there are many countries in the world where being gay is a crime," said Franco Grillini, the head of Gaynet, an Italian gay rights group.
But Aurelio Mancuso, head of Equality Italia, said the type of legal protection that Paglia was talking about would mean "keeping the status quo, in other words an absence of rights".
"The only chance is a clear law that recognises the rights and duties of gay couples, in terms of property and inheritance, medical assistance, social welfare," he said.
Paglia, who took up his post last June, is considered more open and modern than his predecessors, particularly on accepting the reality of the daily lives of many Catholics.
Another top Vatican prelate, Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, on Monday also stressed the importance of adapting laws to new social realities.
"Legislators have to provide answers to some circumstances that did not exist before," he said in an interview with news channel Tgcom24.
"It is another thing to impose laws like in Spain, France or Portugal without a scrap of debate," he said.
The Catholic Church considers homosexuality sinful and the pope has said it goes against "natural law". But the Church also supports human rights and is opposed to discrimination against homosexuals.