The Italian government has approved a bill to grant legal rights to unmarried couples, including same-sex partners.
There have been protests about the Vatican's stance
The highly controversial move came after months of heated debate in the broad, ruling coalition and fierce opposition from the Vatican.
If parliament passes the package, unmarried couples will get greater health and social welfare benefits.
But partners will enjoy inheritance rights only if they have been living together for at least nine years.
The bill, approved on Thursday evening, does not go as far as the civil unions now protected by law in some other European countries.
But Franco Grillini, a Democrats of the Left parliamentarian, said "it still contains important elements, beginning with the recognition of rights for same-sex couples". He is honorary president of Italy's main gay rights association, Arcigay.
Equal Opportunities Minister Barbara Pollastrini, a co-author of the bill, said: "This draft law, which is a mark of respect and coherence, recognises rights but also duties."
The legislation - promised in the centre-left manifesto of Prime Minister Romano Prodi last year - divided the government, which includes centrist Christian Democrats and Communists.
The cabinet vote was boycotted by Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, a devout Catholic.
He said he opposed the bill because "it seeks solutions and guarantees which imitate marriage".
Pope Benedict XVI has campaigned against legal recognition of unmarried couples, saying the traditional Christian marriage of man and woman must not be undermined.
The government in Spain, where Catholic traditions remain strong, legalised gay marriages in 2005. The same rights exist in Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.
Same-sex civil unions - similar to marriages - exist in France and Britain.