ROME — In the beginning, some wondered if Pope Francis quite understood the consternation some of his words and deeds can arouse, and how much some sectors of the Catholic Church, especially those usually seen as more conservative or traditional, often feel aggrieved by the direction things seem to be heading.

After Sept. 10, however, there can be no doubt: Yes, he gets it.

Many of the most memorable moments of this papacy have come during airborne press conferences, and so it was on the pope’s return flight from a Sept. 4-10 trip to Africa. Talking about his critics, Francis actually used the “s-word” — schism — saying that while he doesn’t want one and prays to avoid it, he’s not afraid of it either.

Historically speaking, Rome has feared schism like almost nothing else, because schisms have a tendency to split the Church into pieces that all the pope’s horses and all the pope’s men can’t put back together again.

In recent years, that’s why, beginning with St. Pope Paul VI, every pope since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has bent over backward to try to heal the traditionalist rupture led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X. 

It’s also why the Vatican under St. Pope John Paul II went to such lengths to try to bring ex-Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, nicknamed the “Zambezi Zinger” for his penchant for exorcisms, back into the fold. (That effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, but Rome’s anxiety about a widespread African schism led by Milingo never materialized.)

In that context, Francis’ indirect recognition that a schism is possible on his watch is striking, amounting to a clear signal that he understands the intensity of the reactions he’s generated. It’s also arresting, of course, that the line came in the context of a question about the criticism Francis sometimes gets from Americans.

Francis had set things into motion Sept. 4 during his outbound flight from Rome to Maputo in Mozambique. As he customarily does, he made the rounds of the press compartment on the plane to greet the reporters flying with him. 

One was a French journalist who’s just published a book with the provocative title of “How America Tried to Change the Pope,” about a purported effort by American conservatives, including EWTN and LifeSite News, to sabotage Francis’ agenda. 

In response to being presented with a copy of the book, Francis said he considers it “an honor when Americans are attacking me.”

The line left people wondering what exactly Francis meant, which led to the question from English-speaking journalists on the flight back to Rome. Part of what was asked was whether Francis fears a schism.

“On the question of schism. … In the Church, there have been many,” Francis said, giving the example of ruptures that followed the First and Second Vatican Councils, including the one led by Lefebvre.

 “There always is the schismatic option in the Church,” Francis said. “It’s a choice that the Lord leaves to human freedom. I am not afraid of schism … I pray for them not to happen, as the spiritual health of many people is at stake.”

The pope acknowledged that Americans aren’t his only headache.

“Criticism comes not only from the Americans, they’re coming from all over, including the Curia,” he said, referring to the Roman Curia, the central administrative bureaucracy of the Vatican.

So, is there a serious danger of a schism today? Probably, it depends on what one means.

As any church historian will tell you, the formal sense of a “schism” is a break in communion with the leadership of a church, carried out by someone in a position to speak authoritatively for a segment of the faithful.

In Catholic terms, that means to have a real schism you need at least one bishop to lead it. It’s not clear there’s any bishop prepared to formally reject the pope’s authority, and it isn’t clear how many people would follow him should one actually do it.

In the United States, while there certainly are bishops who aren’t turning cartwheels over some aspects of Francis’ rhetoric and governance, there’s no one who’s even hinted at the prospect of setting up a rival church. 

Moreover, even after the clerical abuse scandals of the past year, polls show Francis still has the support of seven out of 10 American Catholics, which is the sort of approval rating of which politicians can only dream.

The prospect of a schism in the full-blown sense, therefore, seems remote. Instead, what may already be in the works is a de facto, informal schism. No one walks out of the Church in a huff, but some — a relatively small minority, no doubt, but an influential and vocal one — practices a sort of internal exile. Some protest and complain, others simply hunker down and try to ride out the storm.

Francis seems alert to this reality as well, telling reporters on the way back to Rome that today’s problem, as he sees it, is “rigidity” rather than schism.

“Today we have pockets of rigidity, which aren’t a schism, but they’re semi-schismatic ways of life that will end badly,” the pope said, adding that bishops, priests, and laity who are “rigid” lack the “health” of the Gospel.

None of that settles the debate over any specific aspect of Francis’ papacy. What it does resolve, however, is any lingering doubt about whether Francis understands that such a debate is raging.

No pope uses the “s-word” without understanding what’s at stake. Francis also told reporters on the plane that if anyone has advice on how to avoid such a schism, he’s open to it, so now the drama may become, who’s going to take the pope up on that offer?