Pope Francis’ remarks last week about homosexual priests left local Catholics and others debating exactly what the new pontiff meant to indicate: potential change in doctrine or simply a change in tone?

Popes don’t usually talk about homosexuality unless it’s to point out that it’s “an intrinsic moral evil” and an “objective disorder” (Benedict XVI), or that gay marriage is perhaps “part of a new ideology of evil” (John Paul II).

The Vatican has held that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not become priests.

So it came as a surprise to many when Pope Francis, answering reporters’ questions on the flight from Brazil back to Rome, said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Those few words have resonated loudly with supporters and critics both. Debate has flared. Did this signal a significant change?

Though he left church doctrine opposing homosexuality untouched, Francis did strike a more compassionate tone than that of his predecessors, some of whom had largely avoided even using the more colloquial term “gay.”

But Vatican experts were quick to point out that Francis was not suggesting that the priests or anyone else should act on their homosexual tendencies, which the church would consider sinful. And observers in Charleston are of mixed mind concerning the pope’s comments.

Marcus Cox, a parishioner at St. Patrick Catholic Church in downtown Charleston, praised the pope for helping to set a more welcoming tone, one that could attract more of the faithful into the Catholic fold.

“His comments only further reflect his desire to reach out to all Catholics and individuals who are marginalized,” said Cox, a history professor and associate dean at The Citadel. “His unassuming leadership style and his message of love and tolerance gives him the ability to connect with individuals seeking a place in the Catholic church.”

Francis might have struck a more conciliatory tone for some, but he surely did not suggest that noncelibate gays and lesbians should escape the church’s judgment, said Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of Alliance for Full Acceptance, a Charleston-based gay-rights advocacy group.

“Pope Francis’ recent ‘Who am I to judge?’ remark regarding gay clergy has been called an ‘outstretched hand’ and a shift toward greater understanding,” wrote Redman-Gress in an email. “I don’t believe it is either. When a person, even a pope, uses the ‘who am I to judge?’ phrase, he is saying, ‘I won’t judge because I am a sinner as well; I am going to leave the judgment of that person’s sexual orientation to God.’ ”

But this implies that a sexually active gay person nevertheless is subject to God’s reckoning (and, by extention, the church’s), Redman-Gress wrote.

“Pope Francis has simply reworked St. Augustine’s ‘With love for mankind and hatred of sins,’ (or the) more commonly (used phrase), ‘Love the sinner and hate the sin.’ Of course, if you believe that my innate sexual orientation is the sin, then yes, you continue to ‘hate’ me. And nothing has changed.”

Indeed, many within and beyond the church agree that while the new pope casts a different tone, his recent comments indicated no change in doctrine.

Viewed in their larger context, they do not reflect a shift in the Catholic Church’s teaching about “homosexual practice,” said Michael L. Bryant, a Southern Baptist who is dean of the School of Christian Studies at Charleston Southern University.

“Unfortunately, some in the media misrepresented Pope Francis’ comments when they suggested that he made ‘revolutionary’ or ‘historic’ statements about homosexuality,” Bryant said. “Rather, his comments reflected a desire to show compassion and respect toward believers who struggle with same-sex attraction while at the same time upholding the Catholic Church’s long-standing teaching that homosexual acts are morally wrong.”

Other Catholic Church observers appear to agree with that assessment.

“It’s not a great opening in terms of contents, but the fact that he talked about it that way is a great novelty,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily La Repubblica.

Francis would probably agree with Benedict’s writings on homosexuality, he added, “but it doesn’t interest him.”

“It interests him to say that the problem, in the end, isn’t if someone has this tendency, the important thing is to live in the light of God,” Rodari said. “Said by a pope, it’s enormous.”

The pope’s comments on homosexuals in the church were yet another sign of the different directions from which Benedict and Francis approach doctrine. While Benedict, the shy theologian, focused more on ethics and advocated a purer church, even if it might end up being smaller, Francis was elected for his belief that the Catholic Church must engage in dialogue with the world, even with those it disagrees with, if it wants to stay vibrant and relevant.

“At a certain point, tone becomes substance if it’s seen as revitalizing the prospects of the church,” said John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican expert at The National Catholic Reporter.

Before he resigned in February, Benedict’s papacy had been marked by scandals: a sexual abuse scandal, a leaks scandal and trouble with the secretive Vatican Bank.

Francis, with his style of radical simplicity and his direct manner, has shifted things.

“He’s completely changed the narrative about the church,” Allen said. “In five months, now the dominant Catholic story is ‘Charismatic Pope Takes World by Storm.’ ”

Rachel Donadio of The New York Times contributed to this report.