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story.lead_photo.caption Pope Francis is greeted by a flight attendant as he boards his flight to Maputo, Mozambique, in Rome's Fiumicino International airport, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Pope Francis heads this week to the southern African nations of Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius, visiting some of the world's poorest countries in a region hard hit by some of his biggest concerns: conflict, corruption, and climate change. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis acknowledged his growing opposition within the conservative right-wing of the U.S. Catholic Church and said in off-hand remarks aboard the papal plane Wednesday it is "an honor if the Americans attack me."

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 that also takes him to Madagascar and Mauritius.

In his book, Seneze charts the fierce criticism of Francis among American 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. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy.

The pope's most outspoken conservative critics in the U.S. include Cardinal Raymond Burke, who Francis ousted as a Vatican supreme court justice, and former White House adviser Steve Bannon. Well-funded, right-wing Catholic media amplified their disapproval. Wealthy Catholics are putting money behind initiatives to discredit Francis' allies with the goal of electing a conservative, doctrine-minded churchman as the next pope.

In presenting the book to Francis, Seneze explained he had wanted to show Francis' problems with the U.S. church and how Francis had responded with "spiritual weapons."

"For me, it's an honor if the Americans attack me," Francis quipped. As he handed the book to an aide, the pope added "This is a bombshell."

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni sought to clarify the pope's comments afterward, stressing they came in an "informal context," and Francis always welcomes criticism.

"The pope wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honor, particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, and in this case from an important country," Bruni said.

Francis' fraught relations with the U.S. 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 an American 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 Carlo Maria 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 U.S. 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.

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