When religion or culture is used to sow division or to impose a certain world view on others, it becomes an ideology, Pope Francis said.
"When culture is distilled and transformed into ideology, this is poison," the pope told a reporter who asked about his remarks in August to young Russian Catholics about being proud of their cultural heritage.
The pope admitted Sept. 4 it was not his best moment when he cited the examples of Peter the Great and Catherine II, who conquered and subjugated neighboring nations and who Russian President Vladimir Putin has evoked as role models in his war on Ukraine.
"Russian heritage is very good, it's very beautiful; just think of the field of literature, music," the pope said. "Perhaps it was not the best way but speaking about the 'great Russia' -- not geographically but culturally -- what came to mind was what we were taught in school, Peter I and Catherine II."
Careful not to mention Putin and his war on Ukraine, Pope Francis said Russian culture "has a beauty, a great depth that should not be erased because of political problems."
"It is true I was not thinking about imperialism when I spoke; I was speaking about culture and the transmission of culture is never imperial," he said. "It's true there are some imperialisms that want to impose their own ideology, but I'll stop there."
Spending about 35 minutes answering 10 questions from reporters accompanying him back to Rome from his Sept. 1-4 visit in Mongolia, the pope also pointed to "ideology" as the cause behind much of the criticism of the current process of the Synod of Bishops on synodality.
The pope insisted people must learn to "distinguish between the culture of a people and the ideology of some philosopher or politician who belongs to that people."
"This is true for the church as well," he said. "Many times people propose ideologies that detach the church from the life that flows from its roots and rises; they detach the church from the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is an ideology incapable of incarnating itself. It's just ideas, but an ideology that gains strength and becomes politics usually ends up a dictatorship with an inability to dialogue and to move ahead with cultures."
Another reporter asked Pope Francis about a book recently published with a foreword from U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke warning of the potential damage the synod discussions could unleash.
In response, the pope repeated a story he has told on other occasions.
"A few months ago, I phoned a Carmelite monastery and asked how the nuns were doing. The prioress responded and at the end, she told me, 'But, Your Holiness, we are afraid about the synod.'
"'What's going on? Do you want to send a sister to the synod,' I said, joking. 'No,' she said, 'we are afraid it will change the (church's) doctrine.'"
At the root of those fears, the pope said, are ideologues who want to frighten Catholics and divide the church.
"In the church, whenever someone wants to interrupt the journey of communion, they always use an ideology and accuse the church of this or that," the pope said. "But they never accuse it of what is true or sinful."
Instead, he said, "they defend a 'doctrine' in quotation marks that is like distilled water, it has no flavor and it's not true doctrine that is in the Creed."
Pope Francis also was asked about Vatican-China relations, especially given the Chinese government's decision to not allow bishops or priests from the mainland to go to Mongolia to see him.
While educational and cultural exchanges are becoming normal, the pope said, "I think we must focus more on the religious aspect, so we understand each other better and so that Chinese citizens don't think the church does not accept their culture and values and that the church there depends on a foreign power," meaning the Vatican.
Relations are "underway," he said. "I have great respect for the Chinese people."
Noting how many Vietnamese Catholics traveled to Ulaanbaatar to be at Mass with the pope and noting the recent agreement of Vietnam to allow a Vatican diplomat to reside in the nation, a reporter asked Pope Francis if he might travel there.
"I don't know if I will go, but John XXIV certainly will," the pope said, using the name he has invented for his successor as pope.
As for other trips, Pope Francis said the only one with a fixed place on his calendar is a visit Sept. 22-23 to Marseille, France, for a meeting of bishops of dioceses bordering the Mediterranean.
An idea has been floated that he should visit Kosovo and that is being studied, the pope said. "But to tell you the truth, traveling now is very -- it's not as easy as it was in the beginning," particularly because of his difficulties walking. "We'll see."