CHICAGO (CBS) — Those who support gay rights are optimistic about comments made by the head of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis says it’s not a crime to be gay and that he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation.

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Bernard Cherkasov of Equality Illinois says it’s a start.

“The message that he is sending is that gay people should not be marginalized because of who they are and should not be removed from their office because they are gay men,”  Cherkasov says.

“Change is always difficult. I think for the Church to continue to stay relevant and draw priest they have to recognize that there are many gay men who are devout Roman Catholics,” he adds.

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While he says the pope’s remarks indicate that no one should be barred from the priesthood because of their identity,  a spokesman for Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George disagreed.

“Pope Francis, on his way back to Rome from the World Youth Day celebration in Rio, reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic faith and other religions that homosexual genital relations are morally wrong,” George said in a prepared statement. “The Pope also reaffirmed the Church’s teaching that every man and woman should be accepted with love, including those with same sex orientation.”

Some conservative Catholics say the requirement for priests has always simply been celibacy — not sexual preference.

“The issue of your attractions one way or the other has never really been the point. The point is how you act on those particular attractions, whether to men or to women, what have you,” says Peter Breen of the Thomas Moore Society.

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The Pope also said women should have a more prominent role in the Church.