Pope Francis, in an extraordinary dialogue about the most polarizing issues confronting his faith, declared his comfort with gay men serving as priests Monday, inspiring hope in gay parishioners who have long felt uneasy in the Roman Catholic Church and triggering another worldwide ripple in the new pope’s surprising young papacy.
“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?” Francis told reporters, referring to gay priests during an 80-minute press conference on his airplane, according to a transcript. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully. . . . It says, these persons must never be marginalized and they must be integrated into society.
“The problem is not that one has this tendency; no, we must be brothers.”
Papal experts immediately began debating the pope’s intentions. Many noted that Francis did not signal a departure from longstanding church teachings that while gay sex is sinful, gay people should be accepted with respect and compassion.
But the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at the Catholic magazine America, sees the pontiff’s plainspoken statement as a huge moment for the church.
“This is the first positive utterance from a pope about gays that did not also include a condemnation,” said Martin. “I think it’s a remarkable act of mercy, compassion, and understanding.”
He was also struck by Francis’ casual use of the colloquial word — gay.
“Traditionally, popes and archbishops and Vatican officials use terms like ‘homosexuals’ or ‘homosexual orientation’ and rarely if ever use the actual word ‘gay,’ ” said Martin, who has written extensively on the subject. “They used these very clinical terms, which itself frustrated the gay community.”
He noted that in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI approved a policy saying men with strong homosexual attractions should not become priests or join religious orders.
“And now the pope is saying who am I to judge them?” said Martin. “If anyone does not see that as a change, they’re not paying attention.”
Constance Cervone, a gay Catholic from Boston, was “encouraged and heartened” by the latest outreach by a pope who “struck me from the first moment as a revolutionary.”
“I think of the Catholic Church as this giant unwieldy institution,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh how can you stay there?’ And I say it takes a long time to turn an ocean liner. I do feel that after 2,000 years, the ocean liner has turned.”
Another local gay Catholic, Richard Iandoli, was cautious and hoping for more action from Francis regarding the church’s position that homosexual attraction is “disordered.”
“He’s got a big heart and he’s trying to reach out to people as human beings and not be judgmental,” he said. “On the other hand he isn’t — at least this early in his papacy — he isn’t taking on these deep-seated conclusions about gay people that are so harmful.”
Terrence W. Tilley, a professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University, found the pope’s wide-ranging press conference, including his call for more attention to the role of women in the church, simply stunning.
“Goodness gracious,” said Tilley, reviewing the pope’s comments. He said Francis’ approach to gay Catholics seems less abstract than that of his immediate predecessors.
“What we’re seeing is someone who begins with a pastoral, personal relationship,” he said. “That makes him sound much more pragmatic than theological. And much more open-minded and forgiving.”
The pope’s comments came during a question about media reports of a “gay lobby” or clique exerting influence within the Vatican.
“So much is written about the gay lobby,” the pope responded. “I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay. They say there are some gay people here. I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad.”
The pope’s brief comments on gay priests struck a resounding note nationally Monday. Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic organizations that advocates for gay people, said Francis had “uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people.”
Speaking on national radio, Ray Flynn, the former Boston mayor and US ambassador to the Vatican said the pope “expressed the same sentiments that I and many Catholics believe. We don’t judge other people. We respect and love people of every race, religion, ethnicity and lifestyle. Pope Francis is a caring and good person whose background is rooted in Catholic social and economic justice. This is not a political philosophy, but something we believe in and try to practice.”
Mathew Schmalz, a Holy Cross professor of religion, said the pope’s statement is likely to “open a new space for dialogue” about sexuality in Catholicism. “It is going to give people more permission to discuss issues related to sexual orientation in the church,” he said.
The pontiff’s comments, while attention-grabbing for their style, appear to fall within the larger themes of compassion and justice Francis has set early in his papacy.
“He has eschewed attempts from some to get him to say the most important issue in the church today is abortion or same-sex marriage,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a professor at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. “He seems to be saying that the most important issue in the church today is outreach to people who find themselves marginalized.”Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobe.com