Gay rights groups are cautiously cheering a shift in tone from the Catholic Church, encouraged that Pope Francis' famous "Who am I to judge?" position has filtered down to bishops debating family issues at a Vatican meeting this week.

There is no discussion that church doctrine on homosexuality will change or that the Vatican will soon endorse gay unions.

But for the first time, a Vatican meeting is discussing gay and lesbian issues and how to provide better spiritual care to Catholic homosexuals. Bishops have spoken of the need to change the church's language about gays.

Francis DeBernardo, leader of a Catholic gay rights group, says: "I think what we're seeing is a crack in the ice that we have been waiting for for a very long time."