ROME – After the leader of the Italian bishops recently appeared to throw cold water on a key constitutional reform backed by Italy’s conservative government, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni essentially told the bishops to back off, reminding them that “the Vatican state is not a parliamentary republic.”

Meloni made the comments in a May 30 interview on Italian television, in response to May 23 comments from Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference CEI and a key ally of Pope Francis.

During a news conference amid a plenary assembly of the Italian bishops, Zuppi was asked about their reaction to the so-called Premierato, a proposal to amend the Italian constitution to provide for the direct election of the country’s prime minister to a five-year term.

At present, Italian prime ministers are chosen by parliament, and thus rise and fall with the fate of whatever majority is in power. Many observers blame that system for chronic instability in Italian politics, with a staggering total of 70 different governments since Italy became a democracy after World War II, an average of one every 1.1 years.

Critics of the reform, including the country’s major center-left and progressive parties, argue that the proposal is vague and ad-hoc, as well as that it would diminish the role of Italy’s president and of parliament, making it anti-democratic.

In his remarks May 23, Zuppi seemed to many Italians to lean toward that critical view.

“Institutional equilibriums always should be touched only with great care,” he said. “Some bishops focused on this, expressing concern.”

“Speaking for myself, I can say that it’s necessary to keep in mind the spirit of the constitution, written by non-homogenous political forces which, nonetheless, had the common good in mind. Therefore, my hope is that whatever emerges won’t be something contingent, that is, that it won’t be partisan.”

“Anyway, it’s still an open subject, and we’ll see how the discussion goes,” Zuppi said.

Many Italian commentators took the response as a rebuke to Meloni and her center-right coalition, which backs the reform.

“It’s not uncommon that CEI takes a position in Italian political debate, but it’s rare that it does so with such preemptory tones, in explicit opposition to the government and so close to a delicate electoral appointment,” said a May 27 editorial in Il Post, an Italian news site, referring to June 6-9 elections for the European parliament.

“Such an interventionist approach, and the decision to take sides so clearly, is reminiscent in some ways of the era in which CEI was led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who was the most politically prominent president of CEI in the last forty years.”

Runi, 93, was the Vicar of Rome and president of CEI under the late Pope John Paul II.

In her May 30 television appearance, Meloni was asked about Zuppi’s comments.

“I don’t know exactly what worries the Italian bishops’ conference, since the reform of the premiership doesn’t affect relations between church and state,” she said.

“But let me also say, with all due respect, that it doesn’t seem to me that the Vatican state is a parliamentary republic, so no one’s ever said they [should be] worried about this. So, let’s make sure no one worries.”

That was enough to create impressions of a full frontal conflict between the government and the bishops, with one major Italian paper carrying the headline: “Meloni, the attack on Zuppi to weaken CEI amid the contest over reform.”

An unnamed spokesperson for CEI attempted to play down impressions of conflict in June 1 comments to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, saying that Zuppi had merely offered a perspective as an Italian citizen, not an official declaration on the part of the Church, and that his comments were directed at all political forces and thus were nor partisan.

At the moment, it does not appear that the proposed reform will draw the two-thirds it would require in both houses of the Italian parliament, making it likely that Meloni and her allies will seek to put it to a popular vote in a national referendum.