Pope Francis has offered a “change of tone” on gay people “but not a change in substance,” says human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

In a significant move on Monday, Pope Francis declared gay people should not be judged or marginalised.

Speaking to reporters during a plane journey back to the Vatican following his trip to Brazil, he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

However, he also referred to the Catholic Church’s universal Catechism, which states that while being gay is not sinful, homosexual acts are.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalised because of this, but that they must be integrated into society,” Pope Francis added.

“Pope Francis has offered a change of tone in Vatican pronouncements on gay people but not a change in substance,” commented Peter Tatchell, director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. “The Church’s hardline stance against gay equality and relationships remains intact. It opposes same-sex marriage. The Catechism condemns homosexual love using strident, inflammatory and homophobic language.

“At best, his statement is a shift away from old-style vengeful condemnation and punishment towards a more conciliatory and merciful church. Although he preaches forgiveness, he still regards homosexuality as a sin for which people must repent. This is only marginal theological progress.”

Mr Tatchell added: “The Pope’s refusal to countenance women priests reiterates the Vatican’s age-old assumption that women are inferior and unfit to be spiritual leaders. It is pure patriarchy and sexism.”

Stonewall’s External Affairs Officer Richard Lane said: “While many lesbian, gay and bisexual Catholics will no doubt welcome this change in tone, the Pope’s criticism of those who lobby for gay equality sounds baffling when his Church still lobbies ferociously worldwide against gay people’s basic human rights.”