Pope Francis has hinted that the Catholic Church could support gay civil unions and called for women to have a greater role in the church in an interview that marks his first year as pontiff.
In a wide-ranging interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis reiterated that gay marriage could not be accepted by the Catholic Church.
''Marriage is between a man and a woman,'' he said.
But he left the door open for the church to support other formally recognised relationships that would provide economic security and healthcare.
''Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care,'' he said.
''It is about pacts of cohabiting of various natures, of which I wouldn't know how to list the different ways.
''One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.''
Director of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre in Erskenville, NSW, Father Claude Mostowik, said gay Catholics would welcome the Pope's comments.
"It sounds like a softening in the approach even if it does not go far enough," he said.
"I'm sure it gave people at least comfort to see a human, compassionate way of approaching this issue."
Father Mostowik, a member and former national president of Acceptance - a faith group that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics - said the Pope's comments closely followed those of German Bishop Stephan Ackermann who said the Church could no longer ignore same-sex unions.
"There has been a changing conversation in the Church towards a much more compassionate, reconciling and merciful approach," he said.
"There's a bit of movement around the place and I think it's a hopeful thing."
A spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said it is not a matter of the Pope "changing his stance" on same sex marriages.
"Pope Francis has always been consistent in that Catholic doctrine will not change. And that Catholic teaching states matrimony is between a man and a woman.
"Pope Francis has always emphasised kindness and mercy but he makes it very clear in the interview he is not talking about changing doctrine but applying the church's teachings with compassion and kindness."
In the interview, Pope Francis said while his predecessor Pope Paul VI had been courageous in resisting calls to soften on the Church's teaching on artificial birth control, he also said it should be applied with ''much mercy''.
He also said women should be ''present in the places of the decision of the Church''.
Pope Francis said he did not want to be known as a ''sort of superman'' as he was just a man who ''laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else''.
''A normal person'' he said.
While acknowledging the ''very deep wounds'' caused by child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, Pope Francis defended the Church's handling of the world-wide scandal and said it had been ''perhaps the only public institution to have moved with transparency and accountability''.
''No one else has done more,'' he said.
''Yet the Church is the only one to be attacked.''
The Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convener Corey Irlam said Pope Francis' comments were pleasing and come nearly two decades after the Rainbow Sash movement were refused communion for identifying as same-sex attracted Catholics in Melbourne and Sydney cathedrals.
''We welcome Pope Francis' comments and hope that others in the church hierarchy inside the Vatican will back them,'' Mr Irlam said.
''I think we have seen Pope Francis make some positive comments in the past and the Vatican spokespeople have tried to take them back,'' he said.
Mr Irlam said he hoped Pope Francis appointed an archbishop with similar views to his own when replacing the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Pell to a new role in the Vatican.
- FFX Aus