A new Vatican commission created to lead the charge for reform on the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandals met this weekend in Rome, with a couple of members making headlines by protesting recent comments by Pope Francis on spanking.

In truth, however, it was a different gauntlet commission members threw down in front of the pontiff that’s likely to prove far more consequential.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was created by Pope Francis in March 2014, and features Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston as president. It has 17 members from around the world, including two abuse survivors, and its mandate is to advise the pope and Church leaders around the world on best practices in anti-abuse efforts.

Two days before the group assembled in Rome, Pope Francis stirred controversy by casually opining during a Wednesday General Audience that it’s okay for parents to use corporal punishment as long as the “dignity” of their children is maintained.

During a Vatican press briefing on Saturday, a couple of commission members said they’d discussed the pope’s comments and planned to press him to rethink his views.

Krysten Winter-Green, a New Zealand native now working in the United States with abused young people, said physical punishment of children by a parent or someone in a more powerful position is unacceptable.

“There has to be positive parenting, in a different way,” she said.

In truth, it’s not clear that the pope’s views on spanking are really any of this commission’s business. In any event, most moms and dads around the world probably aren’t waiting for the pope to tell them if corporal punishment is okay.

For better or worse, popes simply don’t have much control over how most parents raise their children.

What popes do have some leverage over, however, is what makes or breaks a bishop’s career in the Catholic Church. It was a challenge on that front that represents the truly significant development out of this weekend’s meeting.

Peter Saunders, an English survivor of sex abuse by priests and others, was named to the Vatican commission last year. Now 57, he heads a London-based group called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) that offers counseling and support to abuse survivors.

Saunders told reporters on Saturday that he and other commission members want to see rapid action on what many critics consider to be the most important piece of unfinished business in the Church’s response to the abuse scandals, which is accountability for bishops who covered up abuse charges.

Since the crisis erupted in the early 2000s, the Church has developed stern accountability measures for clerics who commit abuse. Any priest facing a credible accusation is supposed to be immediately removed from ministry and reported to the police, and if the charge is substantiated, they’ll generally get kicked out of the priesthood.

To date, however, Catholicism has not developed similarly tough discipline for bishops who fail to make those “zero tolerance” policies stick.

In the United States, probably the most famous example of this “accountability gap” remains retired Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who presided over a spectacular series of failures in his archdiocese and yet was allowed to relocate to Rome to take up a comfortable, though admittedly inconsequential, Vatican post.

Francis has promised to fill that gap, saying there will be no “daddy’s boys” — prelates afforded special treatment — on his watch. He launched an investigation last year of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, to date the lone US bishop to be criminally convicted for failure to report an accusation of child abuse, which many observers took as a prelude to imposing discipline.

It’s now February, however, and Finn is still in office in Kansas City. After two years of Francis, it remains true that no bishop anywhere in the world has lost his job or suffered other consequences for dropping the ball on an abuse charge.

Saunders said on Saturday that he appreciated the fact that Francis has asked commission members to speak their minds, and not to be “yes-men.”

In that spirit, he laid down a challenge for the pope: If he doesn’t see progress on accountability for bishops within one or two years, Saunders said, “don’t expect to see me here again by then.”

Marie Collins, an Irish laywoman who was raped by a priest when she was 13, is the other survivor of clerical abuse on the new panel. Whether Francis realized it or not at the time he made the appointments, she and Saunders now are in position to deliver the pope a massive PR blow should they walk away from the commission calling it a sham.

O’Malley seems to grasp what’s at stake, saying on Saturday that “there have to be consequences” for bishops who don’t respond appropriately to reports of abuse, including procedures that allow such cases to be handled efficiently and not in an “open-ended way.”

That’s a point that abuse survivors and their advocates have been making for years. The difference now is that two of them sit on a Vatican commission, with the capacity to shame the pope into action.

Both Saunders and Collins have demonstrated they won’t be shy about using their political capital. That attempt to make something happen, and not Francis’ line on spanking, is undoubtedly this week’s big pope story.

Why Democrats might want to retreat on mandates

On Wednesday this week, attorneys representing the Catholic media network EWTN were in a federal courtroom in Atlanta trying to fend off millions of dollars in IRS fines because of the network’s refusal to comply with mandates issued by the Obama administration that non-profit employers must cover contraception and other drugs that critics regard as abortion-inducing.

It’s clear why EWTN would choose to fight this battle, beginning with the fact that it takes its Catholic identity seriously. In fact, part of what rankles for EWTN is the administration’s suggestion that it’s not sufficiently “religious” to qualify for a narrow exemption for religious entities.

Beyond that, EWTN’s core market is made up of conservative Catholics in the United States, and it’s tough to imagine anything those folks would applaud more strenuously, or be more willing to open their checkbooks to underwrite, than seeing the network take on Obama and his minions.

What’s less clear is why the administration insists on continuing in what seems increasingly like an exercise in futility.

Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled in the pivotal Hobby Lobby case that closely held for-profit companies can’t be forced to provide contraception if they have religious objections to doing so. One would think that outcome signals fairly clearly how the court would rule on a non-profit institution too, giving the administration a strong incentive to find a political resolution to the mandates dispute.

Moreover, the handwriting on the wall seems clear in several other ways.

In late January, the Supreme Court by a 9-0 decision ruled that the Arkansas prison system could not arbitrarily prevent Muslim prisoners from growing beards in keeping with the tenets of the faith. Just this week, a federal court also rejected an attempt to sue InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a conservative Protestant campus ministry program, because it had fired a staff member for getting divorced.

In both cases, the logic was the same: That broad requirements of public law need to include exemptions for religious conviction.

At the same time, there are currently 55 challenges to the contraception mandates from non-profit entities such as universities, dioceses, and charities currently making their way through the system. So far the challengers have won at lower levels 33 times, as opposed to just 6 losses — yet another hint about which way the courts are leaning, and one that doesn’t seem to require a law degree to decipher.

Given all that, it’s difficult to explain why the administration would toss good money after bad, spending both its political and administrative capital to defend a requirement whose eventual collapse seems probable.

Some will attribute the tenacity to a genuine conviction that contraception deserves to be part of the country’s basic health care package, while others probably will suspect an ideologically-drive agenda to stick it to institutional religion and to the Catholic Church in particular.

Whatever the case, Democrats with an eye on the Catholic vote in the 2016 elections might have an incentive for pushing the White House to beat a face-saving retreat before Pope Francis arrives in September for his first visit to the United States.

In the abstract, Francis’ core social and political priorities — solidarity with the poor, immigrant rights, environmental concern, and conflict resolution — generally skew towards the Democrats in American politics. His September visit, and the overall energizing impact of his papacy, might give a boost to the Catholic vote for whomever the Democrats end up nominating in 2016.

The odds of such a “Francis effect”, however, would be significantly reduced if Obama puts the pontiff in the position of having to deliver what will be seen as a public rebuke because the contraception mandates dispute is still alive when the pontiff comes, and Francis feels obliged to address it.

In other words, aside from the mounting legal futility of keeping this battle going, the Democrats may also have a solid political motive for cutting their losses.

A boost for the Catholic center-left in Italy

In virtually no country on earth other than Italy would the selection of a new president automatically be read as an index of the political punch of Catholicism and the leadership of the pope. Yet as economist and historian Giulio Sapelli puts it, “the Italian question is no more and no less than the Catholic question.”

Church and state in il bel paese are inextricably linked; hence, the recent choice of Sergio Mattarella as Italy’s 12th president is inevitably being dissected for what it says about the Church under Pope Francis.

In a nutshell, the take-away is that the center-left faction in Catholicism — what in the States we would call “Catholic Democrats” — are feeling their oats in the Francis era.

Briefly, the 73-year-old Mattarella was born in Sicily to a prominent family active in the anti-fascist uprisings during World War II. His father was one of the founders of the Christian Democrats, the party that would dominate Italian politics for the next 50 years, with a platform based on Catholic social teaching.

The young Mattarella was active in the Church, among other things taking part in the bishop’s lay movement Catholic Action. He drew inspiration from the greats of Italian Catholic culture, especially its center-left heroes — including legendary activist-priests such as Giuseppe Dossetti and Luigi Sturzo, and Catholic politicians such as Alcide de Gasperi and Aldo Moro.

A turning point came when Mattarella’s brother was assassinated by the Mafia, driving him into politics on an anti-Mafia and anti-corruption agenda. He held a series of positions with left-leaning forces in Italy, eventually becoming one of the founders of the center-left Democratic Party that governs today under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Although Mattarella has been around a long time, he operated mostly behind the scenes. As columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia put it on Friday, “before last Saturday, very few Italians had any idea who their future head of state was, or even what he looked like.”

By all accounts, Mattarella is a serious Mass-going Catholic, but not one who takes his political cues from the bishops. He embodies what another center-left Italian politician, former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, once famously called an “adult Catholic,” meaning one who makes up his or her own mind when it comes to public policy.

Fearing a parliament dominated by the leftist Democratic Party might choose just such a figure, a leading conservative Catholic blog in Italy last week actually issued an appeal to the deputies not to choose a Catholic. The idea apparently was that if you’re going to pick a president who disagrees with us, don’t add insult to injury by making it one of our own.

Mattarella didn’t waste time stoking those conservative fears. In his inaugural message to the Italian parliament on Monday, he pledged to work to “guarantee civil rights also in the personal and affective sphere,” widely seen as a shorthand way of expressing support for a more liberal approach to marriage and family.

For his part, Pope Francis dispatched a message to Mattarella after his election invoking “constant divine assistance for an illuminated action of promotion of the common good grounded in the authentic human and spiritual values of the Italian people.”

Catholics of a more progressive inclination in Italy have fallen over themselves applauding Mattarella’s rise.

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, said this week that the choice of Mattarella marks the end of Italy’s “Second Republic,” a phase that Riccardi said was marked by the overtly political role of the Italian bishops’ conference. Now, he said, the country is entering a new era in which Catholics will be points of reference in political life without their activity being orchestrated by the hierarchy.

Almost needless to say, much commentary has focused on Mattarella as the perfect political interlocutor for the Church in the era of Pope Francis, given that the pontiff himself is often seen as, on most things, a man who leans to the “center-left.”

To grasp the Catholic significance of all this, one has to appreciate two points.

  • In Italy, power rests with the prime minister.

    The prime minister is the head of government and the real power-broker in terms of political decisions. The president’s powers are nominal, making the position more akin to a moral authority.

    Italians see their prime minister as a politician, but their president as a secular pope. They want the choice to be a statement about what’s best in their national character, so to have this sort of Catholic step into the role is seen by progressive Italian Catholics as a vote of confidence in the political and ecclesiastical tradition they represent.

  • When Italy sneezes, the rest of the Catholic world catches a cold.

    Bishops, theologians and activists from every point on the Catholic compass pay close attention to Italy, presuming that if something happens in the pope’s backyard, then it must be a harbinger for the rest of the Church.

    The decision-making class in Catholicism reads the Italian papers, knows the Italian movers and shakers, and follows Italian affairs. As a result, everything that happens in Italian Catholicism has a strong ripple effect elsewhere.

    Sergio Mattarella matters most in Italy, in other words, but for Catholics everywhere else, he matters at least a little.

The pope and Congress

Speaker John Boehner of the US House of Representatives announced on Thursday that Pope Francis will address a joint session of the US Congress on Sept. 24, kicking off a visit that will also see the pontiff travel to New York to address the United Nations and Philadelphia for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

The Vatican quickly confirmed the appointment, which will mark the first time a pope has addressed Congress.

Veteran Vatican writer Luigi Accattoli pointed out this week that what will take place Sept. 24 is actually remarkably rare. It will be only the fourth time a pope has addressed a country’s national parliament, and each of the three previous occasions were motivated by the pope’s nationality, either through birth or adoption.

John Paul II addressed a session of the Polish parliament during a homecoming trip in 1999, and also went across town in Rome in 2002 to the Palazzo Montecitorio to speak to the parliament of Italy, the country which by that stage was his adopted home. Likewise, Benedict XVI addressed the German Bundestag during a homecoming visit in 2011.

Although Boehner made an effort to supply a similar logic for the invitation to Francis, calling him the “first pope from the Americas,” Accattoli nevertheless points out that the “substantial novelty” of this invitation is that it will be the first time a pope speaks to a parliament without there being an obvious reason connected to his own citizenship.

“It could help give rise to visits to other parliaments, contributing to overcoming on a planetary scale residual anti-Catholic and anti-papal prejudices,” Accattoli wrote.