made his most explicit public acknowledgment of tensions with conservative Catholics in the U.S., saying he hopes the divisions within the church don’t lead to a schism.
The pope has been criticized by conservative Catholics, many of them Americans, for playing down traditional teachings on marriage, sexuality and bioethics while focusing on social causes such as climate change and migration.
“I pray that there will not be schisms, but I am not afraid,” the pope said Tuesday to reporters accompanying him on his flight to Rome after a weeklong trip to Africa.
A schism is the secession of a group of believers, which typically leads to the establishment of a new church. Pope Francis noted that such splits have been a recurring feature in the history of Christianity.
“There is always a schismatic option in the church,” the pope said, but added that the “path of schism is not Christian.”
Pope Francis was responding to a question prompted by a comment he had made last week, on his outbound flight from Rome to Mozambique, when he told a French journalist that it was “an honor that Americans attack me.”
One of pope’s most prominent critics in the hierarchy is U.S. Cardinal
a former head of the Vatican’s supreme court, who along with three other cardinals publicly presented the pope with critical questions about his teaching on divorce.
In a departure from traditional doctrine, Pope Francis has encouraged priests to waive the ban on Communion for some divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment.
Conservative Catholic media in the U.S. have aired frequent criticisms of the pope on various issues, including his conciliatory approach to gay Catholics and his categorical condemnation of the death penalty.
The U.S. also has been the source of the biggest scandal of the current pontificate: the accusation last year by a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. that Pope Francis had ignored a history of sexual misconduct by then-Cardinal
and made him an influential adviser.
Mr. McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., has denied wrongdoing. He was convicted of sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults by a Vatican court earlier this year and permanently removed from the priesthood—the first cardinal in modern times to receive such a penalty.
The pope and the U.S. bishops also have clashed over how to handle sexual abuse and its coverup by members of the hierarchy. Last November, the Vatican halted the bishops in their plans to establish new rules for reporting and disciplining bishops who transgress. The Vatican later produced its own rules addressing the matter.
“The criticisms aren’t just from Americans, they are a little bit everywhere,” even in the Vatican, the pope said on Tuesday, adding that he welcomes such feedback as long as it is straightforward.
“At least those who criticize have the honesty to say it. I like that. I don’t like it when the criticisms are under the table and they smile and show their teeth and then there is a knife in the back,” he said.
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