Pope Francis described attacks on him by ultra-conservative US Catholics Wednesday as an "honour," minimising efforts by rebels to besmirch his papacy.
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 US conservatives who loathe his outreach to migrants 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.
The ultra-conservative wing of the church in the United States frequently takes aim at Francis, saying he is not outspoken enough on abortion, too compassionate towards homosexuals and divorcees, and too accommodating towards Muslims.
In presenting the book to Francis, Seneze explained that he had wanted to show Francis' problems with the US church and how Francis had responded with "spiritual weapons."
"The American attacks on me are an honour," the Argentine – elected in 2010 as the world's first Latin American pope – said in reference to critics who accuse him of softening the Church's stance.
As he handed the book to an aide, the pope added "This is a bombshell."
"The pope meant that he always considers criticism as an honour, especially when it comes from authorised persons, and in this case from an important country," clarified Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, moving to roll-back the comments.
Seneze, the Vatican expert for French daily La Croix, said the pope's words showed he "has no intention of changing his ideas."
The pontiff's fiercest and most vocal critic is US cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a conservative heavyweight who has criticised in particular Francis's handling of the clerical paedophilia crisis, which Burke has blamed on homosexuality.
Burke and three other cardinals wrote a letter to the pope in 2016 saying that he should be sanctioned for confusing Catholics with his teachings, and a year later some 60 conservative priests accused Francis of "heresies."
Allegations last year by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican envoy to Washington, that Francis covered for a senior US cardinal accused of abuse increased speculation of a possible plot against him.
The pope's Wednesday comment "is going to enrage a lot of people in Catholic conservative circles in the US, who will continue their anti-Francis campaign", said Inés San Martín, Vatican correspondent for Crux, a Catholic news website.
Vatican watcher Edward Pentin said he thought it was "a complete myth that there is a conspiracy to bring down the pope".
"There are just people who are genuinely concerned about the direction taken by the pontificate," he said.
Francis' fraught relations with the US church hierarchy has escalated in the last year following published accusations by a former Vatican ambassador that Francis had followed others in turning a blind eye to the sexual misconduct of a US prelate, now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
A church investigation determined McCarrick sexually abused minors and adult seminarians, and Francis defrocked him in February. McCarrick penchant for bedding seminarians was an open secret within some church circles since at least 2000.
The former Vatican ambassador, Archbishop 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 US church, and clergy and lay people latched onto Vigano's accusations. They questioned his commitment to fighting clergy sexual abuse, although allegations against McCarrick first arrived in the Vatican during the papacy of St. John Paul II.
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 outmanouevre the Holy See into accepting new accountability norms that the Holy See said were legally problematic. Eventually the US conference adopted revised norms in June.