Pope Francis has accused his critics of stabbing him in the back, and said he is “not afraid” of the Catholic Church splitting but added “I pray that they do not happen.”
Pope Francis made his comments on a flight back to Rome after a trip to Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique.
He was asked by a reporter about attacks from conservative Catholic leaders, TV channels and websites in the US.
Those men do not “want good for the Church”, but only care about “changing popes, changing styles, creating a schism”, he said.
US Catholic leaders have attacked the Pope in the past for his views.
Read Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference full text here
It is the first time he has spoken so openly about the chance of a split in the Church.
Francis said he welcomed “loyal” criticism that leads to introspection and dialogue. Such “constructive” criticism shows a love for the church, he said. But he ideologically driven critics don’t really want a response but merely to “throw stones and then hide their hand.”
During his flight to Africa last week, a French journalist presented Francis with a book about the pope’s conservative critics in the U.S. Francis acknowledged his right-wing opponents and said, “For me, it’s an honor if the Americans attack me.”
The book, “How America Wants to Change the Pope,” documents the growing criticism of Francis by a small wing of U.S. Catholics who question many of his positions. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy and warned of the risk of schism, or a formal separation from the Holy See.
Francis’ allies, including German Cardinal Walter Kaper and the head of Francis’ Jesuit order, have said the conservative criticism amounts to a “plot” to force the first Jesuit pope to resign so a conservative would take his place.
Asked about the criticism and risk of schism, Francis insisted his social teachings were identical to those of St. John Paul II, the standard-bearer for many conservative Catholics.