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Is Pope Francis a heretic?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Is Pope Francis a heretic?

He’s one of the more beloved popes in recent memory, and his emphasis on pushing a more open and gracious brand of the faith has drawn many wayward Catholics back to the church. Still, there are those who see his more lenient views on a number of issues as supporting heresy. As a result, a conservative segment of the Roman Catholic Church sent the pope a “filial correction,” the first such notice since the fourteenth century. It’s essentially a letter pointing out what they see as his theological errors and how his teachings have the potential to harm the faith.

None of the letter’s sixty-two signatories is a cardinal in the church, and the only bishop to sign the document represents a segment that has no legal standing in the Catholic Church at the moment. Consequently, while the story has made headlines, it’s unlikely to result in any real change. Pope Francis indicated as much by not even responding to the letter.

But while this story is likely to go away as quickly as it arose, it offers us an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the ways in which the pope’s efforts to reach out to those on the margins can instruct our own.

A recent study found that the statistics often cited regarding how many Americans don’t claim a religious affiliation—the so-called “nones”—are perhaps a bit misleading. While it’s been commonly said that roughly 20 percent of Americans fit that category, the reality is that the number is closer to 10 percent. Only 70 percent, however, claim to be adherents of any particular religion at a given time. That leaves 20 percent stuck in the middle, waffling back and forth between the other two outcomes. The survey called them “religious liminals,” and they seem to be the ones at the focus of the pope’s efforts.

People in this category can be on the fence about their faith for any number of reasons, but for most it seems to come down to a simple apathy about religion. They are not inherently opposed to faith, but they also frequently have little interest in it. As Bradley Wright put it in Christianity Today, “With these liminals, sharing one’s faith isn’t introducing something entirely new as much as it is fostering something that is already there.”

By removing the barriers that have kept many Catholics outside the church, Pope Francis is attempting to do just that. The opposition he’s facing, however, reminds us that there is a line of which we must always be aware between presenting the faith in an appealing way and distorting the faith in our attempt to make it more attractive. I don’t believe that he’s crossed this line, but it’s one Christians have struggled to toe throughout our history.

Very few, if any, of the Church’s many heretics set out to mislead others. Most were simply trying to better understand their faith while also making it more appealing to others. But in every case, those efforts eventually became more important than the foundation of Scripture. As a result, they crossed into heresy and often led others to do the same.

The Church has frequently made this same mistake today. Unbiblical views on abortion, marriage, sex—both heterosexual and homosexual—and a host of other issues typically came about when genuinely well-meaning believers prioritized how others might see the faith over the gospel itself. They lost sight of that line, and both the church and those they were trying to help are suffering as a result.

Those on the margins of the faith are in desperate need of God’s truth presented in a way that removes as many barriers as possible between them and the Lord. But if we lead them to anywhere except the heart of the gospel and the truth of Scripture, then we’ve accomplished nothing.

Jesus commanded us to make disciples by teaching them to understand and obey his word (Matthew 28:19–20).

What kind of disciples are you making?