Conservative culture warriors are concerned that the church is selling out to secular culture and should more forcefully be a sign of contradiction to it, and I agree that the Church must always be such a sign of contradiction; it must always play a subversive role in its relationship to the world of princes and powers. But conservative Catholic culture warriors are disappointed in Francis because they want from him more confrontation with the secular culture, and for them that means confrontation on sexual issues. For them one's position on abortion, gay marriage, and divorce are litmus tests of orthodoxy--either think or behave correctly on these issues, or you're not really a Catholic.
I have a hard time understanding the obsession conservatives have with sex and why it has always been a marker for them about what is orthodox or not. It doesn't get that much treatment in the New Testament, and it could not be by any stretch of the imagination be seen as one of Jesus' primary concerns. Human sexuality along with a whole range of things in our experience of being fallen human beings needs to be transformed by grace, but it is not clear to me why sex is more important to conservatives than the way they use their money, or eat, or behave toward the poor and the prisoner. Why this obsession with sex? I suspect it has less to do with the spirit of the gospels and more to do with threats they feel to their tribal sense of identity. It's akin to the genital controversy in the early church concerning whether gentiles needed to be circumcised when they entered the church. The hard-line conservatives lost that one, and the Church didn't lose its identity--it expanded it. The same kind of challenge faces the church now.
The Church's essential role in the world right now is to be prophetic voice against very powerful forces in the world that seek to dehumanize us. There are lots of ways that sexual behavior is dehumanizing, and we see it all over. I've argued here that the Church's position on abortion only makes sense to non-Catholics if is presented as part of a larger spectrum of issues in a consumer society that dehumanizes us. There's a very powerful argument that can be made here that all but the most hardened secularists would be receptive to, but the public face of the pro-life movement is not broadly perceived as a defender of the deeply human; it is perceive, for good reason, as dominated by outraged Puritans on the warpath against heresy. This approach persuades no one, and it isn't very Christian, if by Christian we mean the spirit of mercy and understanding the suffuses the gospels.
But that's why many conservatives tend not to "get" Francis. He's not an outraged puritan; his first priority is the first priority presented in the gospels, which is that the kingdom Jesus brought into a fallen world be born within the hearts of as many human beings as possible. When the rule of that kingdom takes root, it transforms the human soul and makes the need for external rules secondary. The Church is not first and foremost a club you belong to and that you get kicked out of if you don't follow the rules.That is such a small, soul-shrivelled vision of what it is or could be. It is a place that points to the existence of this alternative regime and invites and encourages us to allow its rule to govern us.
Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and what that means for us is that insofar as we can say truly 'not me but Christ in me' that law is being fulfilled in us. It's not our adherence to the rules that matters so much as the degree that our hearts have been changed, and the sign of that is in our becoming more deeply human, more compassionate, more spirited, gentler, more vulnerable, and more fearless as truth tellers. But that truth telling, while it must be clear and firm, need not be strident and judgmental.
In my experience, people who rely too much on the rules do so because they are fearful and lack practical wisdom. They have little common sense and a very weak instinct for what the decent thing to do is in a particular circumstance. They don't trust themselves, so they need to consult the rule book or authorities that they think are rules experts. They will often do or say terrible things because they think the rules permit it or even require it or some demagogue demands it. But the rules or the law have value in the sense of pointing to best practices, and the best practices have value only insofar as they provide a path for our becoming more deeply human. Our learning the rules benefits us like learning scales and chords benefits the aspiring musician, and it's useful to be taught them rather than to have to figure them out for yourself by trial and error. But they are not an end in themselves. They are tools to empower us to work more effectively and creatively in the world.
That's the value of a living tradition: it passes on to us the value of what our ancestors have learned about what works and what doesn't so that we don't have to start from scratch. But the rules of the ancestors are historically and culturally circumscribed, and what's important is not the letter but the spirit or the wisdom that lies behind the rule, and as long as we work with that spirit, the rules can be changed and adapted to different circumstances. This might in certain circumstances look like caving in to secular society without it being that at all. But people who only focus on the rules and not the spirit that lies behind them find it very difficult to understand that. For them rules are rules. But that attitude toward rules makes idols of them.
So they are not an end in themselves. They have value only insofar as they point beyond themselves and increase our capacity for higher levels of human performance in the world, and for the Christian that means building bridges not walls, of trusting that grace is everywhere if only people would open their hearts to see it. Once rules become an impediment to that kind of work, they are not only useless, they are dangerous and lead to a dehumanizing spiritual emptiness, foremost among them the sanctimony of the religious zealot and the Pharisee. Zealotry is a parody of religious sincerity. It compensates by drawing from the lower instincts what it lacks from a higher inspiration by grace and love. A Pharisee is a technocrat of the spirit, and his condition is much worse. His is a cold, dead-soul state in which the he arrogantly believes himself superior by virtue of his expertise, his prodigious knowledge of the rules and of his perfect adherence to them. He is a spiritual Robespierre.
Francis is a mensch. He's deeply human, and as such a model of the transformed heart about which I wrote above. That anybody could resent him or think that he is damaging the church says far more about such a person's hardness of heart than it says about his being faithful to the truths of the faith. Conservatives worry too much about the forms and not enough about the life that gave them their shape in the first place. They are more concerned about good order, than they are with the life of the spirit. We need the forms, but they are not the important thing; the shaping creative power that lies behind them is. Align yourself with that which lies behind the forms, and the forms will take care of themselves.