RIO DE JANEIRO -- In declaring that he was in no position to judge gay people, Pope Francis did nothing to change Roman Catholic doctrine, which prohibits homosexual sex but not the state of homosexuality. But at least one prominent commentator said the remarks constituted "a sea change," and they were the topic of avid discussion and debate Monday, especially in Catholic circles.

Conservative Catholics, many of whom are increasingly put off by Francis’ accessibility and deliberate simplicity, sought to downplay the remarks, which the pope made on his flight home to the Vatican from Brazil, where he made his first overseas trip as pontiff.

“He addressed the issue [of gays in the church] in a more frank way, but this is not a departure” from Catholic teachings, said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Catholic Assn. The church, even in its less accepting times, has long maintained that gay people should not be discriminated against.

But the pope seemed to be going beyond that.

“Pope Francis was pointing out that Catholics with a homosexual orientation, honestly living out their faith and seeking God (as all Catholics should), are integral members of the church,” said Ramon Luzarraga, a theology professor at the Benedictine University of Mesa, Ariz. “They are not automatically part of some rumored fifth column seeking to change the church.”

The pope's remarks came up during an 80-minute, impromptu news conference on his flight back to Rome, and have been widely reported. They came up when Francis was asked about a supposed “gay lobby” of Vatican officials, purported to have been discussed in a confidential report he was given upon his election to the papacy.

Francis said he did not approve of any kind of lobby, but that it was important to distinguish that from priests or other Catholics who might be gay.

Then, he seemed to clear the way for gay priests, as long as they remain celibate.

“If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said. “They should not be marginalized.”

The Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit commentator, said the remarks constituted a dramatic change in the church's attitude toward homosexuality. He tweeted:

 

 

The U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights organization, sent out a statement welcoming Francis’ comments as a “significant change in tone” but said that the church still had a long way to go in welcoming gays, lesbians and transgender people into the Catholic fold.

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