>> Jason Horowitz, The New York Times
Published: 2019-09-11 16:17:57 BdST
“I pray there are no schisms,” Francis said in a lengthy news conference aboard the papal plane as he returned from a six-day trip to Africa. “But I’m not scared.”
Francis was returning to Rome from a trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius that showcased the priorities of his papacy: reaching out to the poor, advocating justice for migrants and other marginalised people, and protecting the environment from capitalism run amok. In doing so, he has alienated some conservatives — especially in the United States — who say he is promoting an anti-American, anti-capitalist agenda and drifting from the core teachings of the church.
The airborne news conference lasting more than an hour offered Francis an opportunity to respond to his accusers. He mused that his critics often excoriated him for saying and doing the same things that one of his recent predecessors, Pope John Paul II, said and did on issues of social justice. John Paul II, now made a saint, was a favourite of church conservatives.
“They are the same things John Paul II said. The same! I copy him,” Francis said. Meanwhile, he said, his critics scream, “the pope’s too communist.”
Francis was responding to questions asking him to elaborate on an offhand remark he made last week as he flew south from Rome to Mozambique. Having been presented then with a new book by a French journalist that explores the well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate, Francis had responded that it was an “an honour that the Americans attack me.”
Asked Tuesday if there was something his critics didn’t understand about his pontificate, or if instead there was something he had learned from his critics, Francis said that he always found value in criticism, because it prompted self-reflection. But he lamented that politicised ideology had seeped into doctrine and driven some of the critiques in the American church and beyond.
Critics of Francis, must notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, have argued that Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, and his loose approach to church law have confused the faithful on a range of doctrinal issues, from divorce to homosexuality. That critique is frequently aired, in sometimes furious language, on conservative American Catholic television channels and websites.
A former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, who demanded the pope’s resignation last year, has been hailed as a hero in some of those circles. Viganò has in part blamed the child sex abuse crisis on Francis’ tolerance for homosexuals in the priesthood, despite the scandal having first festered and exploded under his conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Some of Francis’ closest allies have in recent months publicly said that he is the target of a conspiracy by conservative enemies who are threatened by the more pastoral direction that he has taken the church. One close adviser, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the Vatican-vetted magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, has accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Donald Trump.
On the plane, Francis suggested that some of his most ardent critics were working out their own problems by lashing out.
“We have to be gentle, gentle with the people tempted by these attacks, by these things,” he said. “Because they are going through problems and we should accompany them with gentleness.”
In his news conference, which paused briefly for turbulence, Francis also talked about how energised he was by the youth he encountered in the three countries he visited in the weeklong trip, especially compared to graying Europe.
“Mother Europe has almost become grandmother Europe,” he said. “It’s aged.”
He warned against xenophobia which crept into countries “like measles,” he said. He again called on the world’s leaders to address poverty and to be better custodians of the environment.
“In the Vatican we have already banned plastic,” he pointed out.
Francis also called on Britain to heed international organisations and leave the disputed Chagos Archipelago of Mauritius. The British kept Chagos after the country won its independence in the 1960s and expelled the local population. They currently lease the island of Diego Garcia to the United States, which has a military air base there. In May, a United Nations resolution called on Britain to hand the administration of the Chagos Archipelago over to Mauritius.
Asked by a Mauritian reporter on the plane whether he supported that call, Francis said, “We have to obey international organisations. This is why United Nations was created, why international courts were created.”
But it was his remarks about his detractors inside the church that seemed most likely to stick.
Some conservatives have argued that Francis, who constantly denounces walls and champions the building of bridges, has shut them out by ignoring their formal complaints that he is diluting church doctrine and leading the faithful astray. They argue that when even his top Cardinals present him with such criticism, Francis responds with pink slips.
But Francis claimed that he respected such critics. “This is loyal,” he said. “This is to love the church.”
What he didn’t appreciate, he said, were “little closed groups” who refuse to hear an answer to their critiques, or worse, who feigned allegiance by “throwing a stone and hiding the hand.”
“I don’t like it when the criticism is under the table and they smile and show their teeth,” he said. “And then there is a knife in the back.”
© 2019 New York Times News Service