Pope Francis said on Wednesday it was an "honour" to be attacked by US Church conservatives and their Catholic media allies, who have criticised him on issues from theology to climate change and even called for his resignation.
The pope's response to his American critics came on a flight to Mozambique, for a three-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa, while chatting with French journalist Nicholas Seneze, author of a new book How America Wants to Change Popes.
In it, Seneze describes a network of conservative commentators, political operatives, theologians and churchmen who have sniped at Francis, often through well-funded Catholic news outlets and foundations.
"It's an honour that the Americans attack me," the pontiff said when asked about this by Seneze.
The pope said he had not yet read the book as aides could not find it, but implied he had heard about it in Italian newspapers.
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After Francis left the journalists' section of the plane, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni returned to issue a statement attempting to clarify his remarks.
"The pope was speaking in an informal context in which he wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honour, particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, in this case, those in an important nation," he said.
In the past few years, Francis has been the butt of criticism from a small but powerful number of American conservatives unhappy with his stands on various theological issues as well as social matters from immigration to climate change.
Their spiritual guru is American cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who stepped up attacks on Francis after the pontiff demoted him from a senior Vatican post several years ago.
Burke often appears on Catholic conservative media such as the EWTN religious television network, and his speeches are often published in full by sites such as the National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency and LifeSite News.
Seneze mentions all of them in his book.
For years, Burke enjoyed an anti-Francis alliance with Steve Bannon, but broke with the former Trump White House strategist in June after Bannon said he wanted to make a film version of a sensationalist book about alleged homosexuality in the Vatican.
Another conservative publication, the intellectual journal First Things, has also been highly critical of the pope.
Some of the publications have run petitions by small numbers of Catholic academics in the 1.3 billion-member Church calling the pope a heretic and demanding his resignation over topics from communion for the divorced to religious diversity.
Last year some simultaneously published a document by the Vatican's former ambassador to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, calling on the pope to resign.
It contained a number of uncorroborated personal attacks against a string of Vatican officials.