Amid a robust Italian debate over the leadership of Pope Francis, a cross-section of liberal Catholic groups in the country has launched an online petition to show backing for the Argentinian pontiff.

Pointedly called “Stop the Attacks on Pope Francis,” the petition was launched on Christmas Day by groups including “We are Church,” “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” the Edith Stein Study Center, an Italian association of theologians, and a variety of base communities. All are generally associated with the liberal wing of the Italian Church.

The petition is also signed by the Rev. Luigi Ciotti of Turin, one of Italy’s best known anti-Mafia priests, and the Rev. Alex Zanotelli, a Combonian missionary priest and a well-known social activist.

As of Jan. 3, the petition had attracted close to 2,500 signatures, toward a goal of 50,000.

The current Italian row over Francis began when one of the country’s most renowned Catholic journalists, Vittorio Messori, published a front-page essay on Dec. 24 in Corriere della Sera stating his “perplexity” over what he sees as the pontiff’s contradictions.

Among other things, Messori faulted Francis for sometimes sending signals that the Catholic Church is no more than an “optional accessory” in the spiritual life, for reaching out to political leaders whose agenda is contrary to Church teaching, and for pursuing an uncritical dialogue with leaders of Protestant movements that are draining people away from Catholicism in Latin America.

According to the petition, which was launched the day after the essay appeared, Messori’s critique was a “true declaration of war” and expressed the leading edge of a deeply entrenched anti-Francis backlash.

“The arrival of Francis has provoked frantic reactions with the Vatican Curia, which, decimated by scandals and corruption, considers the pope a foreign body in its systems of alliances with worldly power, fueled by two perverse instruments: money and sex,” the petition asserts.

“At first the chatter about a ‘strange pope’ began quietly, but then it became steadily louder and clearer,” the petition asserts.

Among other things, the petition cites a book issued shortly before last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, in which five cardinals — Gerhard Müller of Germany, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar; American Raymond Burke, former head of the Vatican’s supreme court; Walter Brandmüller of Germany, and Italians Carlo Caffara and Velasio De Paolis — came out against the idea of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

That book, according to the petition, “reinforced the front of adversaries who see in Pope Francis a danger that must be blocked at all costs.”

“We oppose these maneuvers, expressions of a conservatism that often has impeded the church from fulfilling its only true responsibility of spreading the gospel,” the petition says.

“We cannot stay silent, and with force we shout that we’re on the side of Pope Francis,” the petition says. “We want to create a crown around him of support and prayer, of affection and convinced solidarity.”

According to the petition, Francis has the support of “the church of ordinary people, of the parishes, of the sidewalks.”

In a Jan. 3 essay in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Ciotti wrote that he signed the petition even if “certain expressions are a little strong,” above all because he feels that sometimes Francis does not receive “adequate support.”

“It’s evident,” Ciotti wrote, that Francis’ style generates “bewilderment and alarm” in some quarters. Yet, he said, Francis is “giving the church back the credibility that comes above all from a complete purification of [claims to] power, and full consistency with the Word of God.”

In October, an organization called “Faithful America” launched a similar on-line petition of support for Pope Francis in the United States, in that case related to language in an interim report from the Synod of Bishops on the family regarding a welcoming attitude to gays and lesbians and those living together outside of marriage. That effort has garnered close to 35,000 supporters.