Others said bigger changes are sure to follow.
“I think change in the church is evolutionary and not revolutionary,” said Francis DeBernardo, who heads New Ways Ministry, which works with gay Catholics and their families. “If we want to see real change, we have to take it step by step. We’ve been waiting for this first step for a long time. No one in the papacy has taken this kind of step, ever.”
The remarks Francis made on the plane underscore his reputation as a conservative and a pragmatist. In 2010, as cardinal of Argentina, Francis worked behind the scenes to persuade bishops to support civil unions for gay couples — primarily because he saw them as a way to ward off full-fledged marriage for gays.
Many Catholic commentators said the pope’s remarks, while stylistically different, were similar in substance to previous church doctrine.
In a statement on his Web site, William Donohue of the Catholic League said Francis is carrying on a policy enunciated by Benedict:
“Pope Benedict XVI, responding to the homosexual scandal in the Catholic Church . . . did not make it impossible for gays to enter the priesthood; he simply made it more difficult for those who were practicing gays to enter. Pope Francis said nothing to contradict what his predecessor said.”
Chad C. Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at Catholic University who has written on the papacy, said that “people are right to perceive a change in tone and that that tone is a pastoral tone on the question of homosexual inclinations.”
Pecknold noted that Francis told reporters he did not mention abortion or same-sex marriage before his trip to Brazil because he wanted to sound “positive.”
Rather than “beginning the conversation with what the church teaches about what one shouldn’t do,” Pecknold said, the pope “wants to begin the conversation about what it means to enter into the mercy of God.”
Michael Sean Winters, an author who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, said Francis’s take on gays in the church is part of his graceful style.
“He’s not saying, ‘Look, there is no sin,’ although he does tend to talk of the sins of savage capitalism more than he does of secularizing humanists. He is leading with mercy. He never wags his finger.”
Pecknold called Francis an “agent of renewal” for the church.
“I think the world likes a good comeback story,” he said. “There’s a sense in which the Catholic Church has been riled by scandal in the third quarter of the 20th century, and it’s time to come back from this.
“I think there’s a palpable sense that people want to see the church succeed. . . . I think there is this palpable sense that Pope Francis might be that agent of renewal who enables people to say, ‘It’s cool to be Catholic.’ ”