ROME — Pope Francis has fired back at his critics over the document Amoris Laetita, suggesting they suffer from “a certain legalism, which can be ideological.”  The critics now include a group of four cardinals who’ve accused the pontiff of causing grave confusion and disorientation and even floated the prospect of a public correction.

“Some- think about the responses to Amoris Laetitia– continue to not understand,” Francis said. They think it’s “black and white, even if in the flux of life you must discern.”

The pope’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview with the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire published on Friday, in response to a question about his Jubilee Year of Mercy and its relation with the 1960s-era Second Vatican Council.

“The Church exists only as an instrument to communicate to men God’s merciful design,” he said, adding that during the council, the Church felt the “need to be in the world as a living sign of the Father’s love.”

The Council, particularly the document Lumen Gentium, according to Francis, moved the axis of the Christian conception “from a certain legalism, which can be ideological,” to God himself, who through the Son became human.

It’s in this context in which he talked about the responses to Amoris Laetitia by those who continue “not to understand” this point.

Although he gives no names, it’s not a stretch to imagine the pope was thinking about the dubia or “doubts” about the apostolic exhortation presented to him by four cardinals, including American Raymond Burke.

The pope told the prelates he wasn’t going to respond, which is the reason why the cardinals went public with their questions earlier in the week.

In a follow-up interview with the National Catholic Register, Burke said they had done it out of charity towards the pope, and in an attempt to end the “tremendous division” caused particularly by chapter eight. In it, Francis seemingly opens the doors, in case-by-case situations, for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments.

Burke, an expert in canon law, said that if the pope doesn’t provide the “clarification of the Church’s teaching” they are asking for, then they’d consider making a formal act of correction of the Roman Pontiff.

But the “legalists” responses to Amoris are far from being the only matter addressed by Pope Francis in his interview with Stefania Falasca, a journalist from Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.

The two central issues throughout the three-page long interview are the Holy Year of Mercy, which will conclude on Sunday, and ecumenism, meaning the press for greater Christian unity.

Falasca asked the pope about his inter-Christian meetings, saying that there too, he finds critics in the form of those who believe he’s “selling out” Catholic doctrine. “Some have said you want to ‘Protestantize’ the Church,” she asks.

But Francis is not too worried about this criticism either: “I’m not losing sleep over it. I’ll continue on the path of those who proceeded me, and I follow the Council.”

Opinions, he said, have to be distinguished according to the spirit with which they’re voiced. “Where there’s not a nasty spirit, they can help you on the path,” he said. “Other times, you see quickly that criticisms taken here and there to justify pre-existing positions aren’t honest, they’re formed with a nasty spirit in order to sow division.”

These rigorisms, Francis argued, “are born from something missing, from trying to hide one’s own sad dissatisfaction behind a kind of armor.”

To illustrate his point and this “rigid behavior,” the pope recommended the 1987 movie “Babette’s Feast.”

Proselytism among Christians is sinful

Talking about Christian unity, the pope said it’s “a path” that leads to a walking together with Jesus, and that despite the theological differences, a “practical ecumenism” is possible and it can take different forms, such as Christians working together to help the poor.

Unity, he insisted, is built in this walking together, and it’s a “grace” that has to be asked for. It’s for this reason that he repeats: “every form of proselytism among Christians is sinful. The Church never grows from proselytism but ‘by attraction,’ as Benedict XVI wrote.”

“Proselytism among Christians, therefore, in itself, is a grave sin,” he said.

The journalist then asked, “Why?”

“Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how to become and to remain Christian,” he said. “The Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans.”

Francis also spoke about his friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, sharing that during the trip the two took to the Greek island of Lesbos to bring attention to the refugee and immigrant crisis, the Orthodox leader had his pockets full of candies, making him a favorite among the children.

This, the pope said, is Bartholomew, a man capable of leading the Great Orthodox Council, talking about high-level theology and being with children.

“When he came to Rome he would stay in the room where I am now,” Francis said, referring to room 201 of the Santa Marta, a hotel within Vatican grounds where he’s lived since the beginning of his pontificate. “The only thing [Bartholomew] reproached me for is that he had to change rooms.”

The cancer of the Church is giving glory to each other

Never one to go easy with his own people, the pope once again spoke about the “spiritual disease” some Catholics have, in believing that the Church is a “self-sufficient human reality, where everything moves according to the logic of ambition and power.”

“I continue to think that the cancer of the Church is giving glory to each other,” the pope told Falasca.

“If one doesn’t know who Jesus is, or has never met him, you always can meet him; but if one is in the Church, if one moves in it because it’s precisely in the ambit of the Church that one cultivates and feeds one’s hunger for power and self-affirmation, you have a spiritual disease.”

Francis argued that Martin Luther, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, realized this: “the refusal of an image of the Church as an organization that can go ahead ignoring the grace of the Lord, or considering it as a possession to be taken for granted, guaranteed a priori.” 

“This temptation to build a self-referential Church, which leads to opposition and therefore to division, always comes back,” the pontiff said.