NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- New Yorkers and people around the world were reacting Monday to what may have been the most memorable and attention-grabbing statement by Pope Francis since he became leader of the Roman Catholic Church in March.
As CBS 2's Tracee Carrasco reported, the Argentinian-born pontiff was asked what his response would be upon learning that a cleric was gay -- but not sexually active.
He responded that he would not judge gay priests, and explained "You can't marginalize these people," CBS News reported.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said.
The pontiff's remarks came during a news conference aboard the papal aircraft as he returned from Brazil.
The stance was quite different from those of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who signed a document in 2005, stating that men with deep-rooted homosexual orientations should not be priests.
When asked for comment, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told CBS News that the pope was "for sure" not just referring to gay priests, but to all gays.
Lombardi told CBS News the pope's statement did not represent a change in church teachings. As Pope Francis pointed out himself in his answer, the church's catechism teaches that gays are to be accepted and welcomed, not discriminated against, CBS News reported.
Lombardi pointed out that during the news conference, the pope specifically confirmed church teachings on abortion and female ordination. He told reporters the question about female priests was "definitively" answered by Pope John Paul II, CBS News reported.
The difference in the pontiff's remarks about gay priests, Lombardi told CBS News, was the pope's attitude which puts mercy, forgiveness and understanding "in the forefront."
Joseph Zwilling of the Archdiocese of New York likewise said the new pontiff's statements only reiterate what the church already believes about acceptance and homosexuality.
"I don't see anything new in what the Holy Father said. It's the classic teaching of the church -- just explained in this new context," Zwilling said. "What the church teaches is clear -- that it's the action it's the activity that is sinful, not the inclination."
Zwilling said the position of the church is that same-sex sexual relationships remain unacceptable.
"It's wrong for a person who is homosexual to live out the gay lifestyle," Zwilling said. "It's not who you are, it's what you do."
The national gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign also released a statement on the pope's remarks. HRC President Chad Griffin agreed that the statements did not indicate any change in church policy, but they did "represent a significant change in tone."
"Like his namesake, Francis' humility and respect for human dignity are showing through, and the widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change," Griffin said in a statement.
But Griffin argued that church teaching does, in fact, need to change.
"But as long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born -- how God made them -- then the Church is sending a deeply harmful message," he said in the statement.
Some LGBT Catholics told CBS 2 on Monday that they were hopeful about the implications and openness of Pope Francis.
"Perhaps it would mean a greater tolerance for it among the priesthood who don't practice it, but that might be about all," said one LGBT Catholic.
"It's sort of like opening a window for a real good discussion on gay clergymen," added Eugene Werner of Queens.
And as CBS 2's Lou Young reported, members of the banned Catholic gay group Dignity were pleased that the pope seemed to be offering an olive branch.
"We liked it a lot," said gay Roman Catholic Jeff Stone.
Dignity said the words were startling, coming as they did at the end of a tumultuous overseas trip.
"He actually used the word 'gay.' He talked about us as faith-filled people, which many gay people are," Stone said. "It just felt much more inclusive than what we've been hearing from the Vatican for the past few decades."
But to some, it was a shock.
"For the Pope himself, the head of the Catholic Church, to almost give a green light to it, and say it's accepting for priests? It's almost unheard of," said Christian New Yorker Jason Chance.
If people disagree with the Pope they aren't inclined to speak about it publicly. At St. Patrick's Cathedral on Monday evening, the change of tone at the top was getting high marks from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
"I was happy the pope speak out on the issue," said Catholic New Yorker Pat Rothman. "and I think it's about time."
"He seems pretty progressive," added Jewish New Yorker Rachel Chubinsky. "I like it."
In Catholicism, sex outside of marriage is considered a sin, and the church remains opposed to same-sex unions.
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