Pope Francis did not this week change church doctrine toward gays and lesbians. He did not condone same-sex marriage. Nor did he suggest he approves of homosexuality. But in one short sentence, the leader of the Catholic Church fundamentally shifted the tone of the conversation about gays and the world's largest Christian denomination.

In remarks made to reporters Monday on a return flight from Brazil, the pontiff said he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Pope Francis said.

That he even used the word "gay" was remarkable. With the phrase, "who am I to judge," the pope revealed himself to be quite distant from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who cast the issue of homosexuality in far more disapproving terms and once pronounced the same-sex marriage a threat against "the future of humanity itself."

That's not to suggest Pope Francis favors same-sex marriage. He doesn't. Just last month, he disparaged the marriage equality movement in France as "political fashion." It would certainly be ridiculous to suggest he's veering far from church doctrine (although he reportedly considered supporting civil unions several years ago in his native Argentina).

But how refreshing to hear the matter of homosexuality cast in a more conciliatory tone and to hear words of acceptance of gay priests, albeit those who have chosen to remain celibate. And he delivered them in what turned out to be a fairly free-wheeling, impromptu and lengthy exchange with the press, something Pope Benedict also did not embrace.

How open-minded might Pope Francis prove to be? When asked about the charge that there's a "gay lobby" within the Vatican, he joked that he hadn't seen it stamped on anyone's ID card yet. He said that gays "shouldn't be marginalized" and that "the tendency [toward homosexuality] is not the problem."

This was not the only subject matter where Pope Francis proved himself less doctrinaire. On the subject of women in the church, he also seemed interested in offering them a wider role — although not as ordained priests or in official posts. Instead, he spoke of the need to have a "truly deep theology of women in the church." What that means, exactly, remains to be seen.

The world is still getting to know Pope Francis. The 76-year-old Jesuit was elected just four months ago, and his trip to Brazil was his first foreign trip as pope. But he is already getting noticed for his no-frills style, compassion for the poor and interest in reform — beginning with the scandal-plagued Vatican bank.

Even non-Catholics should be comforted by the pope's willingness to talk openly about the difficult issues facing his faith. With its 1.2 billion members, the church maintains a significant influence in the world, and Pope Francis' desire to see gays integrated into society and not marginalized can only be regarded as helpful to the equality cause.

Of course, it could end right there. It could be Pope Francis made a calculated decision to speak more temperately about gays because of the charges of homosexual conduct made against his recently-appointed prelate to the Vatican bank. (A preliminary investigation of those charges found nothing, the pontiff told reporters, incidentally).

That kind of manipulation seems unlikely, but even if true, his remarks still revealed a willingness to publicly speak of acceptance of homosexual priests in a manner that would have seemed shocking just a few years ago. A religious corner has been turned — not a major one necessarily — but it can only help foster a more civil discussion in the church and elsewhere.

So chalk one up for Pope Francis. If nothing else, his papal press conference won him approving headlines in much of the secular world. And it may even prove to have been an important step for a church not known for embracing modernism toward accepting homosexuality and marriage equality as a legitimate human rights cause.