Pope Francis' recent comment that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation is a change in tone for church leadership but hardly breaks theological ground, local gays and Catholics say.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" the 76-year-old pontiff said during a plane journey back from his trip to Brazil after being asked what his response would be upon learning that a cleric was gay but not sexually active.

The surprisingly personal remark was a departure from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who wrote that men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests and called homosexual acts "intrinsically disordered."

Gay advocates were delighted with Francis' more conciliatory tone.

"Certainly, they were very welcomed remarks, not that they necessarily change the ecclesiastical position of the Roman Catholic Church, but it certainly was a change in tone," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of Philadelphia's Equality Forum, a national LGBT civil rights organization.

Benedict "essentially took the position that gays were mentally disoriented, and clearly that was totally and completely out of sync with the position of the American Psychiatric Association and others," he said.

Michael Viola, president of Dignity Philadelphia, a chapter of the nation's oldest organization for LGBT Catholics, said of the pope: "I don't want to say a step, but it's a lean in the right direction."

The Argentine pontiff's remarks are in keeping with the concern he has shown for other marginalized people, especially the world's poor. He has called for a larger role for women in the church, and has washed and kissed the feet of Muslim and female prisoners. He has also demonstrated his modesty by carrying his own luggage, forgoing the bulletproof "Popemobile" on his trip to Brazil, and passing up a vacation at the plush Vatican summer retreat.

To many the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is a kinder, gentler pope than the man who came before him, a German known to some as "God's Rottweiler."

Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based author of the Vatican-watching blog Whispers in the Loggia, noted that in the past, church leaders would not even use the word gay, preferring the more clinical homosexual.

"That the pope simply used the word gay" is groundbreaking, he said.

His words do not depart from church teaching on human sexuality, which is that any sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently said on Today, "It's been a pretty clear teaching of the church based on the words of Jesus that we can't judge people; we can judge actions."

The church calls for compassion and care for gays and forbids discriminating against them, Palma said. The pope's words "bring the pastoral to the forefront," he said.

Sometimes the doctrinal and the pastoral do not always match up, he noted.

That was true during the height of the AIDS crisis, said Lazin, when gay Catholics were excluded from holding services or using church facilities.

"I can't think of anything more un-Christian than that," he said.

No one believes Francis is going to move the church in a vastly different direction on the matter of gay priests, just as he declined to reconsider women priests when he noted recently that the issue had been settled.

But Viola thinks the pope's more tolerant attitude will make members of the LGBT community at least feel more welcome at church.

"I think this is as inclusive as he gets," Viola said. "But it's a positive step for him to say, if you're someone who's gay, faithful, and comes to God, I'm not going to judge.

"That's a message that local parishes need to take away. You should not be judging."

Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com, 610-313-8232, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.