The pope has responded to attacks from conservative Catholics who criticize his stance on social issues and climate change. He accused some of stabbing him in the back.
Pope Francis said Tuesday he wasn't afraid of a schism within the Catholic Church and that his opponents use "rigid" ideology to cover their own moral failings.
Speaking to reporters during an in-flight press conference en route to the Vatican after a three-nation Africa tour, the pontiff said that some of his ultra-conservative American critics had allowed political ideology to infiltrate religious doctrine.
"When you see Christians, bishops, priests, who are rigid, behind that there are problems and an unhealthy way of looking at the Gospel," Francis said.
As the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, the pope has faced criticism from conservative Catholics in the United States for his stance on immigration, climate change and social issues.
Some detractors have even accused Francis of heresy, and warned of the risk of a schism, or a formal separation from the Holy See.
"I am not afraid of schisms," Francis said. "I pray that there won't be any because the spiritual health of many people is at stake."
The progressive pope?
The pope has reached out to the LGBT+ community and divorcees, while expressing concern for the poor and the environment.
Conservative critics say Francis is not outspoken enough on abortion and too accommodating towards Muslims. Some have even labeled the pontiff a communist for his critique of capitalism.
"The social things I say are the same things that John Paul II said," Francis told reporters, referring to the former pope and popular Catholic leader.
Francis said that while he welcomed "constructive criticism," he had no time for "those who smile while stabbing you in the back."
The last schism in modern history was in 1988 after ultra-traditionalist French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained bishops without papal permission, starting his own movement.
However, the most famous breakaway from the Church was the Great Schism of 1054 between Eastern and Western Christianity, which has lasted almost 1,000 years.
wmr,cw (AP, AFP, Reuters)