I've done a lot of writing about what I perceive of as mistakes on the part of a lot of criticisms of Pope Francis, with the last Strawman Dialogues being the latest example of my view. I think many criticisms coming out of the traditionalist, conservative camp are mistaken and overblown - and I think the recent history of social conservatives on controversial issues often leaves something to be desired in terms of approach and explanation. I think we've done a poor job of representing ourselves on gay marriage quite often. On abortion, not quite as often.
But I just want to make one thing clear: it's not as if I don't think worries about Pope Francis are entirely unreasonable. I may think many of the reasons being given by traditionalists are poorly voiced, and sometimes poorly considered. But "many" does not equal "all".
So, in the interest of providing some balance here... let me take a stab at explaining what I think some reasonable worries are.
Let's take a look at Francis' approach. I've praised it in large part: here we have a Catholic Pope, who has not given a single inch on Catholic orthodox teaching, getting praised by the masses. Time's person of the year? That's, if not an honor, at least a cultural boon at the moment - particularly in how it presented the Pope. That he's managed to achieve this without sacrificing anything with regards to orthodox Catholic teaching on social issues really is remarkable.
The problem - the risk - is that you don't need to sacrifice a teaching explicitly in order to sacrifice it in practice.
I think the best point of comparison is the illegal immigration issue in the United States. Illegal immigration is against the law to this day - it's on the books, there is a penalty. There is, as of yet, no amnesty. But what the hell does that matter? We've had de facto amnesty for years, and while the laws are on the books, they are typically not enforced. Oh, sure, now and then they get enforced for show. But really, you don't get tens of millions of illegal immigrants in your country by accident if you, the world power, were sincerely trying to keep them out. Let's not kid ourselves.
Likewise, it's entirely possible for the Pope to never come out and say 'Abortion is just fine, gay sex is just fine, contraception is acceptable' yet for the Church to move leftward on these issues. All you need to do is never talk about abortion and sodomy, wring your hands and whimper 'it's complicated' whenever someone asks you the question, and also find creative ways to punish anyone who actually does speak out against those things. You don't even have to punish them FOR speaking out. Find another reason - any will do, so long as they're punished.
I'm not saying that this is the situation with Francis. For one thing, he's spoken out against abortion explicitly. Women priests? Likewise - this is not an open question. Homosexuality? He's been clear, I think, if a little more silent - it's a tough issue for people to talk about, because to deal with it effectively you must be blunt, and I don't think the Pope has it in him to bluntly talk about sex. Most people don't. At the same time, the Church is more than Francis. Will the people he appoints speak out? Will they remain silent? Cardinal Wuerl seems to be the Cardinal of the Catholic Democrat Status Quo: advocate for abortion and you can still get communion, because if he doesn't grant that, then he'll go from being the toast of the town to a political pariah and we can't have that. Refuse to serve communion to a lesbian buddhist unrepentantly in a current sexual relationship? Wuerl will be there to punish you. And we just saw Wuerl elevated.
See, the fundamental problem here is that 'changing our approach' is something I sincerely believe we need to do. At the same time, I'm well aware that insincere people can hijack 'changing our approach' and use it towards some disturbingly different ends. That was, it seems, the main and ultimate problem with Vatican II - it wasn't that the core ideas involved were a bad idea. They were good ideas, in fact. It was that the implementation was easy to hijack, so hijacked it was. I can't fault anyone for being on guard against that - we've already seen it once in living memory.
So here we are in a complicated situation. The social conservatives need to change their approach, improve their message, to be more effective and to convince more people. There are legitimate criticisms to be had of the social conservatives. How do you know when you're dealing with legitimate criticisms of the message, not the value, rather than dealing with attacks on the value? That's the puzzle to figure out, and it will not always be easy.