ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis acknowledged his growing opposition within the conservative right wing of the U.S. Catholic Church and said in offhand remarks aboard the papal plane Wednesday that it is “an honor if the Americans attack me.”
Francis commented on critics of his papacy when he received a copy of a new book about his detractors in the United States, “How America Wants to Change the Pope.” Author Nicholas Seneze, who covers the Vatican for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, presented it to Francis on a flight to southern Africa.
The plane landed in Maputo, Mozambique late in the afternoon. Francis is on a trip this that also takes him to Madagascar and Mauritius.
In his book, Seneze charts the fierce criticism of Francis among U.S. conservatives who loathe his outreach to immigrants and China, his denunciation of free-market capitalism, his environmental concerns and his relaxation of church rules on the death penalty and sacraments for civilly remarried Catholics. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy.
The pope’s most outspoken conservative critics in the United States include Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Francis ousted as a Vatican supreme court justice, and former White House adviser Steve Bannon. Well-funded right-wing Catholic media amplified their disapproval. Wealthy Catholics are putting money behind initiatives to discredit Francis’ allies with the goal of electing a conservative, doctrine-minded churchman as the next pope.
In presenting the book to Francis, Seneze said that he wanted to show Francis’ problems with the U.S. church and how Francis had responded with “spiritual weapons.”
“For me, it’s an honor if the Americans attack me,” Francis quipped. As he handed the book to an aide, the pope added, “This is a bombshell.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni sought to clarify the pope’s comments afterward, saying they came in an “informal context” and that Francis always welcomes criticism.
“The pope wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honor, particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, and in this case from an important country,” Bruni said.
Francis’ fraught relations with the U.S. church hierarchy has escalated in the past year after published accusations by a former Vatican ambassador that Francis had followed others in turning a blind eye to the sexual misconduct of an American prelate, now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
A church investigation determined McCarrick sexually abused minors and adult seminarians, and Francis defrocked him in February. McCarrick’s penchant for bedding seminarians was an open secret within some church circles since at least 2000.
The former Vatican ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, blamed the scandal on Francis and called for him to resign, in an unprecedented attack. Vigano accused Francis of having rehabilitated McCarrick from secret sanctions Pope Benedict XVI imposed but never fully enforced.
The archbishop had ties to the well-funded right-wing of the U.S. church, and clergy and lay people latched onto Vigano’s accusations. They questioned his commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse, although allegations against McCarrick first arrived in the Vatican during the papacy of St. John Paul II.
Seneze, whose book was published Wednesday in France, said he wanted to use the publication of Vigano’s claims as a starting point even though criticism of Francis’ papacy has earlier roots, including teaching documents about the environment and the injustices of the global economy.
History’s first Latin American pope had his own qualms about U.S. church leadership, which veered to the right during the conservative papacies of John Paul and Benedict, and focused on fighting culture war battles over abortion and gay rights.
Relations took a nosedive in the aftermath of the Vigano affair, when several U.S. bishops vouched for Vigano’s integrity and demanded the Vatican respond to his allegations. Even the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, called for a full Vatican investigation.
To date, the Vatican hasn’t released a promised report into the scandal.
The U.S. conference lost further esteem in Rome when it tried late last year to outmaneuver the Holy See into accepting new accountability norms that the Holy See said were legally problematic. Eventually the U.S. conference adopted revised norms in June.