STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Pope Francis says he is praying the Catholic church stays together. In particular, he prays American conservatives will not split the church. But he adds he is not afraid of divisions triggered by American Catholics unhappy with his theological and social views. The pope conveyed that message to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli on a flight home from Africa.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: During his six-day trip to Africa, Pope Francis focused on his signature issues - helping the poor, marginalized and migrants and protecting the environment from exploitation, issues that have alienated many American conservatives. On his return flight home, he replied frankly to a reporter's question about the increasingly loud attacks leveled against him by conservative clerics, websites and TV stations in the U.S. He said his critics are not only some Americans but come from everywhere, even within the Vatican bureaucracy. As long as they speak out in the open, that's positive, he said, and I benefit from it but not when it stays under the table.
POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) They smile at you, letting you see their teeth, and then they stab you in the back. That's not loyal.
POGGIOLI: Some conservative American Catholics have even accused Francis of heresy by sowing confusion on moral issues such as homosexuality and divorce. One of the highest ranking critics is U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke. Removed by Francis as chief judge of the Vatican's highest court, he is frequently interviewed by right-wing Catholic outlets. Several of the pope's allies claim there's a plot underway to force the pope to resign so that he can be replaced by a conservative.
Asked if he fears a schism, the pope said, I'm not afraid but added I pray there will be none because what's at stake is the people's spiritual health. He also accused some of his critics of being hypocrites whose views are tainted by political ideology.
FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) The social things that I say are the same things that John Paul II said - the same things. I copy him, but they say the pope is a communist. When doctrine slips into ideology, that's where there's the possibility of schism.
POGGIOLI: Francis ended his 10-minute-long reply saying these rigid people who attack him are going through a tough time, adding we must accompany them with gentleness. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.