ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis said Tuesday he wasn't afraid of a possible U.S. Catholic Church schism led by his conservative critics, but he prays a rift doesn't happen.

He said a "rigid" ideology used by opponents to mask their own moral failings has infiltrated the American church.

Francis, speaking during a press conference while flying home from Africa, confronted outspoken conservatives in the U.S. and beyond who oppose his outreach to gay and divorced people and his concern for the poor and the environment.

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 said ideologically driven critics don't really want a response but merely to "throw stones and then hide their hand."

"I'm not afraid of schisms," he said. "I pray that there aren't any because the spiritual health of so many people is at stake.

"Let there be dialogue, correction if there is some error. But the path of the schismatic is not Christian."

Francis' comments are likely to inflame a heated debate roiling the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere. The pope's mercy-over-morals emphasis irks some doctrine-minded Catholics who came of age during the conservative papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

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, "Forme, it's an honor if the Americans attack me."

The book, "How America Wants to Change the Pope," documents the criticism of Francis by a small wing of U.S. Catholics who question many of his positions. Some have 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.

Francis insisted his social teachings were identical to those of St. John Paul II, the standard-bearer for many conservative Catholics.

And he noted that church history is full of schisms, most recently after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s church meetings that modernized the church.

"I pray there are no schisms, but I'm not afraid of them," he said.

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