Pope Francis on Monday said “who am I to judge?” gay people as he discussed one of the most divisive issues affecting the Catholic Church.
“I have yet to find anyone who has a business card that says he is gay,” the pontiff said at a press conference in which he addressed the reports of a "gay lobby" within the Vatican.
“They say they exist. If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” he added. "The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalized because of this (orientation) but that they must be integrated into society."
However, Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexual acts are a sin, Reuters reported..
He added that he thought lobbies of any kind -- including political ones -- were bad.
"The problem is not having this orientation. We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem," he said.
The press conference, which lasted for an hour and 20 minutes, was held during the flight back from his week-long trip to Brazil.
The official position of the Catholic Church on the issue is that while homosexual desires or attractions are not in themselves sinful, the physical acts are. All priests take a vow of celibacy when they become members of the clergy.
Father Thomas J. Reece, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, said he thought Francis meant that "if a person is a homosexual and that person is trying to live a good life, it’s not our place to judge them."
"This is very significant I think,” he said. “I think that recently under Pope Benedict there was a move to say that homosexuals could not be priests, that if they were seminarians they should be thrown out," he said.
“I think that Pope Francis is saying something quite different here. Whether you’re a homosexual or a heterosexual the question is whether they can live a celibate life. Other things coming out of Rome were quite different, just a few years ago," he added.
Reece said it was not known whether there really was a "gay lobby" in the Vatican, but this is used to describe a group of homosexual priests who allegedly look out of each other and engage in sexual acts.
Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar in the U.K. who left the church partly because he fell in love with a former friar, said it was “very welcome that at least he [Francis] engages with the subject.”
However Dowd, who become a freelance broadcaster specializing in religion, doubted the comments represented a significant shift in the church, saying they made “a nice headline” but not much else.
“On a scale of zero to 10 about where we need to be, that’s moving from about zero to three as opposed to nine or ten,” he said.
The Pope said he had stayed away from the issue of gay marriage and also abortion on his week-long trip to Brazil because he wanted to stay positive.
Francis discussed a range of issues during the press conference, admitting that the church had not done enough to develop “the theology of women in the church.”
He said that the church had spoken on the issue of women priests and expressed itself clearly on the issue of abortion, but he added that important female biblical figures had been overlooked.
"Mary is more important than the apostles," he said. "One must think about women in the church. We have not done enough theology on this."
History's first Latin American pope said he was "pretty tired" but with a happy heart after his first overseas trip.
He said he was amazed at the number of people who turned out to see him in Brazil, especially the three million who jammed Copacabana Beach for Sunday's Mass.
He added that he was unconcerned by the tumultuous start to the trip that included the discovery of a bomb at a shrine he visited and the mob scene that took place when his driver inadvertently made wrong turn.
"There's always the danger of a crazy person, but there is also the Lord," he said. "This being close is good for everyone."
NBC News' Ian Johnston and Reuters contributed to this report.