As the countdown continues towards Pope Francis’ first meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse, which is expected next week, recent days have brought reminders that the challenges facing the pontiff as he attempts to lead the church out of the scandals are both stunningly simple and maddeningly complex.

Here’s the simple part: For reasons of both PR and substance, it’s critical that Francis not send any signals of retreat. Two developments last week underscored that point.

First, the Vatican announced Friday that Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski has been sentenced to laicization, meaning he’s to be stripped of his status both as a bishop and a priest.

A former papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Wesolowski was recalled in August after a local TV network charged the 66-year-old with paying for sex with underage boys and being a frequent visitor to a Santo Domingo neighborhood known for prostitution with minors.

Wesolowski has two months to appeal the verdict, and in the meantime he’ll be under a sort of house arrest. It remains to be seen if Wesolowski will be extradited to face charges in the Dominican Republic or Poland, with the Vatican vowing to cooperate with any such request. He’s also subject to criminal prosecution under the laws of the Vatican City State.

Concerns that the Vatican might be sheltering Wesolowski had mounted in recent months, and featured prominently in a hearing with Vatican officials before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in February.

Instead Rome has imposed a penalty which, while not exactly unprecedented, is exceedingly rare for a bishop. The last such instance came in 2011 with Bishop Raymond Lahey of Antigonish in Canada, who had been arrested as he tried to enter the country after border control agents discovered child pornography on his laptop.

This is the first time it’s happened with a top papal envoy, and it’s clearly intended to send a signal of accountability.

Second, last week brought a new intervention with the Legionaries of Christ, with news that Francis will name a special assistant to advise the leadership of the troubled order.

The Legionaries became the poster child for the church’s abuse scandals after revelations that their founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct. What made the situation especially egregious is that Maciel enjoyed the favor and protection of the Vatican during the Pope John Paul II years, playing off his fund-raising prowess and success in recruiting priests.

Among insiders, there had been mounting alarm that Pope Francis was taking the Legionaries’ pledges of reform at face value.

Last August he tapped a prominent Legionary for a senior Vatican position, and he also approved the results of recent elections to end direct papal supervision of the order. During his visit to the Holy Land in May, Francis not only held meetings in a Legionary-run facility, but he also blessed a tabernacle for a new resort the Legionaries are opening in Galilee.

In that context, the fact that Francis has decided to keep an eye on the order comes off as a back-handed way of saying he’s not quite ready to impart his seal of approval.

Now, here’s why the picture is also complicated.

As he presses for “zero tolerance,” Francis also may be worried about the risk of encouraging false allegations by creating the impression that any charge, however unmerited or malicious, may permanently damage someone’s reputation and career. That’s likely on his brain because a fellow Latin American prelate has claimed to be the victim of just such a scenario.

On June 20, the diocese of San Felipe in Chile announced that its bishop, Cristián Contreras Molina, had been declared innocent of sexually abusing minors a decade ago following an investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

News of the accusations broke last February, at which time Contreras Molina declared himself innocent and said he would cooperate with any inquiry. The Vatican dispatched two priests from Mexico to look into the case.

In its June 20 statement, the diocese said both the local police and Rome had concluded that “the charges are not true and there are no incriminating elements.”

Though Contreras Molina has said he won’t take action against his accusers, in February he claimed the charges came from three disgruntled priests seeking payback after some of their friends were disciplined by him following convictions in Chilean courts for sex abuse.

Whether that’s true or not, Francis has to be alert to the possibility that it could be, and he may well be worried about fomenting that kind of character assassination.

The pontiff may get some help in resolving the dilemma from his new Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body that includes Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston. Members will be on hand for the meeting with victims, and are planning to gather at the end of the week.

Perhaps the best recommendation they could offer the pontiff is transparency — telling the world what evidence led to the conclusion in a given case, so that when Rome does conclude someone is being framed, it won’t just sound like the clerical caste taking care of its own.

In the end, that may be only way for Francis to thread the needle between reform and recrimination.

A revival of ‘affirmative orthodoxy’ on sex

Some years ago I coined the phrase “affirmative orthodoxy” to capture what Pope Benedict XVI was up to on the subject of sex. It was an attempt to explain the curious fact that whenever people expected the Vatican’s infamous “Doctor No” to wag his finger against sexual sin as pope, he typically served up elegiacs about love instead.

Both elements of the formula count.

Benedict’s line was “orthodox,” because he certainly wasn’t changing doctrine, but “affirmative” in that he wanted to emphasize what the church supports rather than what it opposes. The idea seemed to be that church teaching might find a new lease on life if it came off as something more than a litany of “thou shalt not’s.”

Judging by a key Vatican document released Thursday, affirmative orthodoxy is alive and well, even after the resignation of the pontiff who pioneered it.

Called an instrumentum laboris, or “working paper,” the document sets the table for a summit of Catholic bishops from around the world in Rome Oct. 5-19, summoned by Pope Francis to discuss the family. It should be great theater, since there’s almost no hot-button issue that isn’t germane — from women’s rights, gay marriage, and contraception, to whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to take communion.

The text is designed to synthesize the input the Vatican has received, including responses to a questionnaire requested by Francis to seek the views of the church’s grass roots.

In early reporting, much was made of the document’s acknowledgment that many Catholics do not follow church teaching on contraception. That’s hardly a thunderclap, however, since it’s been blindingly obvious for decades. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley put it in February, if that’s the only result the questionnaire produced, the Vatican could have saved the postage.

The document is also hardly notable for its literary appeal, with National Catholic Reporter columnist Fr. Tom Reese calling it “boring and joyless.” (To be fair, saying a Vatican text isn’t gripping reading is like saying a dog bit a man — only the opposite would be news.)

Its real importance is as a preview of coming attractions for October, and at that level the document seems to hint at changes in tone if probably not in content.

It affirms Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical upholding the church’s ban on birth control, and rues the influence of a widespread “contraceptive mentality.” It asserts that every bishops’ conference in the world is opposed to “redefining” marriage to include same-sex couples, and voices opposition to allowing gay couples to adopt. It also describes abortion as a “very serious sin.”

Even on the issue of the divorced and remarried, where Francis himself has appeared to signal openness to change, the document plays down hopes for a breakthrough.

Paragraph 95 cites the fact that Orthodox Christianity sometimes permits a second or third marriage, but asserts that in Orthodox countries the practice has not reduced the number of divorces. The text also warns against any step that might be perceived as allowing “Catholic divorce.”

In a nutshell, that’s the “orthodox” part of the document. What’s equally striking, however, is its “affirmative” dimension.

Inspired by Pope Francis, probably the single most important word in the 85-page text is “mercy.” Its text repeatedly rejects “moralism,” insisting on “an open and positive pastoral approach.”

Judgmental attitudes are the document’s bête noire.

“The church must not assume an attitude of a judge who condemns,” it says, quoting Francis, “but that of a mother who always receives her children and nurses their wounds so they may heal.”

As an example, the text says in paragraph 120 that even though the church disapproves of gay adoption, the children of same-sex couples should be fully welcome. It also applauds the courage of teen mothers and calls for every effort to help them.

The document calls for a more “positive” presentation of church teaching and warns against “overly rigid” stances. On gay unions, it says “extreme reactions” have not helped and calls for “a respectful and nonjudgmental attitude.” It concedes that the church faces a credibility gap on moral matters, in part because of its sexual abuse scandals and the lavish lifestyle of some bishops.

Paragraph 109 offers a series of present participles to capture the right pastoral style: “Proposing, not imposing; guiding, not pushing; inviting, not driving away; thought-provoking, never disappointing.”

Translated into political terms, what this boils down to is a major boost for the church’s moderate camp.

When it comes to sex, liberals in the Catholic fold seek changes in teaching, while conservatives want more emphatic defenses of tradition. Moderates are generally those who accept current doctrine, perhaps seeking small accommodations in specific cases (such as permitting condom use for married couples where one partner is HIV-positive and the other isn’t). Yet they don’t think the church has to talk about sex all the time, and they favor compassion and flexibility in how the teachings are applied.

It remains to be seen if October’s Synod of Bishops will follow the script laid out in the instrumentum laboris. If so, however, it looks like a prescription for an “affirmative orthodoxy” mandate.

If that proves true, and if Francis runs with it, at the very least we’ll have a fascinating chance to see if a different pope can move Benedict’s message.

More jitters about the pope’s health

Another alarm went off on Friday about Pope Francis’ health when he canceled a planned visit to Rome’s Gemelli Hospital at the last minute, with patients and staff already in the lobby waiting for the pontiff to arrive.

Vatican spokespeople didn’t immediately offer any explanation, but on background officials said the pontiff was suffering from a stomach bug and needed to recover in advance of a major liturgy on Sunday, known as the pallium Mass, in which new archbishops from around the world receive the symbols of their office.

It was the fourth time in the last seven months Francis has canceled or postponed an engagement, citing either fatigue or illness.

Sources close to the pope insist there’s nothing seriously amiss, but rather that he’s simply paying the price for overextending himself. After a series of meetings next week, the pontiff will get some down time, as he’s already suspended his audiences and morning Masses for the month. We should find out soon enough if that does the trick.

The perils of Vatican downsizing

Although Francis is on a reduced schedule in July, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Aside from a possible meeting with abuse victims, three other big-ticket gatherings are on the docket next week:

■ The fifth meeting of the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, July 1-4.

■ The second meeting of the new Council for the Economy, designed to oversee the effort to foster transparency and accountability on Vatican finances, on July 5

■ The second meeting of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Francis to lead the charge in the fight against child sexual abuse.

On the G8, Vatican officials have already cautioned against expecting any firm decisions from this session, saying there’s a lot of work left to do and it will likely be next year before anything definitive happens.

What they’re pondering is a “reorganization” of the Vatican bureaucracy, which is generally understood as a euphemism for downsizing. The general idea is that some Vatican departments, perhaps especially some pontifical councils and academies, may be consolidated or eliminated, while others, such as Vatican Radio, may be slimmed down.

The motives are one part administrative, reducing duplication of effort and the risk of mixed messages by having separate outfits working on the same issues, and one part financial, as an expression of the pope’s cost-cutting campaign.

As much sense as all that makes, and as important as it may be to go slow and get this right, there’s an inherent risk in protracted deliberations about which departments are on the chopping block.

Right now, Vatican insiders report that while the daily grind is going ahead as normal, many offices are hesitant to launch long-term projects and are holding proposals for new initiatives at arm’s length, because they honestly don’t know if they’ll still be in business a year from now. Moreover, there’s also a creeping sense of going through the motions among some personnel who wonder if their jobs are secure.

(To be honest, nobody’s at much risk of being laid off, since the Vatican basically never fires anyone. The more likely scenario is trimming the workforce by not replacing people when they retire or leave for other reasons.)

In other words, the cardinals undoubtedly have good reasons for taking their time, but there are also compelling motives for not waiting overly long to pull the trigger.

One solution would be to announce decisions along the way rather than waiting to unveil a comprehensive reorganization at the end. In other words, if they already know that the “Pontifical Academy for X” is going out of business, maybe the smart thing would be to say it now so personnel will know the deal and can adjust accordingly.

Generally the Vatican provides daily briefings during the G8 meetings, so we’ll see soon if that’s how they decide to play it. So far, signals have been that nothing will be announced until the full package is assembled and presented to the pope for his decisions.