Pope Francis has proffered an olive branch from the Catholic Church to the gay community, calling homosexuals "our brothers" and claiming he does not judge them.

In a revealing interview given to reporters on the plane back from his first international trip, the Pope joked about the "gay lobby" and insisted gay people were welcome in the Church.

“There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card!” he said, speaking to National Catholic Review, and other news agencies, on the plane back to Rome from Rio.

pope francis

The Pope departing from the steps of his plane in Rome

“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?

"They shouldn’t be marginalised. The tendency [towards homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, took a harder line, authoring a advising that men homosexual tendencies should not become priests. But Francis said that he would not judge those coming to God on their sexual orientation.

He had last month mentioned concerns about a number of gay priests in the Vatican.

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“In the Curia,” Francis said, referring to Catholicism’s central bureaucracy, “there are holy people. But there is also a stream of corruption.”

“The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true, it is there,” Francis continued. “We need to see what we can do.”

Despite the Pope's comments, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell remains unconvinced of that his words will lead to substantial change.

Speaking to the Huffpost UK, he said: “Pope Francis has offered a change of tone in Vatican pronouncements on gay people but not a change in substance. 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,” said Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“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."

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.’

Francis also hinted that he was prepared to take a softer line on those who divorce and remarry, couples who are then denied communion, than his predecessors.

"I believe this is a time of mercy, a change of epoch. In terms of communion for those who have divorced and remarried, it has to be seen within the larger pastoral context of marriage.

"When the council of eight cardinals meets, one of the things they’ll consider is how to move forward with the pastoral care of marriage. It’s complicated.”

But he said the "door was closed" to the ordination of women in the Church, but admitted the Church was working on ways to be more inclusive to women rather than labelling them as just wives and mothers.

“On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no. John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed," he said.

“The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with house work … we don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church. We talk about whether they can do this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”

NCR, which has published a full version of the interview, said the Pope had originally told journalists he would give no interviews on the flight to attend World Youth Day in Brazil, where he was greeted by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on Rio's Copacabana beach.

But in a sudden change of heart, he agreed to speak, entirely unscripted and un-mediated, for almost an hour and a half.

It is not the first time, even this week, that Francis has seem to stride from the path his predecessor took. In what could be seen as a dig at his "intellectual" predecessor, the Pope called for a simpler Church based on core values of love and humility, in a speech to hundreds of thousands at the culmination of his Brazil trip.

"At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism which is foreign to our people," he said.

"Without the grammar of simplicity, the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery."