ROME – Some years ago, I was meeting a veteran Vatican-watcher from the States for coffee in Rome. When I arrived, he was deep into scouring local papers about some controversy involving the Italian Church, and I asked why he was interested in what seemed mostly a domestic Italian affair.

“Never forget, Italy is the Vatican’s R&D department,” he told me. “Things get tried out here, reaction gets tested, before it goes global.”

“When the Church in Italy sneezes,” he said, “sooner or later the rest of us catch a cold.”

Over the years, that wisdom has held up more often than not, which means it’s always worth keeping an eye on Italian vicissitudes, and perhaps never more so than the remarkably nasty controversy that’s broken out in recent days involving Bishop Nunzio Galantino.

Galantino, 67, is secretary of the powerful Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI). He’s widely seen as a proxy for Pope Francis, in part because the pontiff hand-picked him for the role in 2013, bypassing the majority of the conference that had recommended other candidates.

On Tuesday, Galantino was forced to pull out from an appearance in Trent at the last minute, saying that he feared his mere presence would further “reinforce polemics” or at least “delay the return of calm to a vainly exasperated climate.”

What’s gotten Galantino into hot water is his sharp rhetoric on immigration, against the backdrop of this summer’s historic wave of migrants trying to reach Europe that the Guardian has termed “the world’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.”

A European monitoring agency reported Tuesday that in the month of July, 107,500 refugees arrived in the territory of the European Union, more than three times the total for the same month last year. According to United Nations figures, two-thirds are from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, with Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria accounting for most of the rest.

Because Italy tends to be where these boatloads of migrants first wash up, it’s shouldering far more than its fair share of the European burden of caring for them. That’s set off a strong national debate about whether Italy ought to become more restrictive, on the grounds that the current situation is unsustainable.

In that context, Galantino has emerged as a strong voice for welcome and integration, as well as a stern critic of anti-immigration forces.

In an interview with Vatican Radio 10 days ago, shortly after he’d returned from a trip to Jordan, Galantino complained about politicians who act like “peanut venders … who in order to get votes say extraordinarily stupid things.”

Two days later, in an interview with the Church-affiliated magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Galantino accused the Italian government of being “absent” from the immigration drama, lacking a coherent strategy for positively integrating migrants.

“It’s not enough just to save migrants at sea in order to soothe the national conscience,” he said.

“Requirements for requesting asylum take far too long,” Galantino said. “We just park immigrants here and there. If there was at least a provisional residency permit, then they could work, so people wouldn’t see them loitering and wouldn’t say that they’re eating up resources at the expense of Italians.”

Famiglia Cristiana later apologized for “sharpening the tone” of Galantino’s remarks, but they nevertheless drew sharp reaction. Even in staying away from Tuesday’s event, he couldn’t avoid stirring the pot.

A text he prepared for the occasion was read aloud, in which he said politics can be noble, but added, “that’s not what we’re used to seeing today, which is a jigsaw puzzle of personal ambitions among a small harem of the co-opted and the clever.”

Many Italian politicians, especially those who believe the country should have tougher policies on admitting migrants and refugees, obviously had heard enough.

Gianluca Buonanno, a deputy from the Northern League, styled the language as an assault on the state itself and called Galantino “the Judas of the 2000s, the betrayer of Italy.” Daniela Santanché, another center-right politician, was equally acerbic: “As the head of the bishops, Galantino obviously knows plenty about harems, the co-opted, and the clever,” she snapped.

Asked for his own reaction, Salvini said that Galantino and a few other bishops are “more left-wing than the Communists” and that “instead of wearing a cassock, they should go around carrying red flags.”

In part, it should be said, the dust-up may be exaggerated by the fact that Italy is just now emerging from the doldrums of ferragosto, the traditional August vacation period, in which there’s not much else that passes for political theater. In that context, the Galantino affair has drawn more interest than might otherwise have been the case.

Nevertheless, Galantino’s decision to pull out of the Tuesday event has been taken by some commentators as a sign that his criticism wasn’t playing well with some fellow Italian prelates. On Wednesday, veteran Vatican commentator Luigi Accattoli wrote that the bishops “on more than one occasion have lamented the unique style of their secretary.”

To date, there’s been no signal of reaction from Francis, but it’s safe to say the pontiff is paying attention – in part, because he knows that for better or worse, most people regard Galantino as “the pope’s man.”

If Francis continues to back Galantino, that may be taken by other bishops in Italy and around the world as sign that the pontiff favors this kind of pull-no-punches approach, perhaps especially vis-à-vis immigration, a core papal priority expected to figure prominently in his visit to the United States next month.

On the other hand, if Galantino goes quiet or retreats into more diplomatic argot, his reticence may be taken as a signal that the pontiff wants to dial down the volume – certainly not backing away from support for migrants, but avoiding perceptions of being overly partisan or political.

We should get an early indication on Friday, when Galantino is scheduled to speak in Rimini, Italy, at a large annual conference sponsored by the Communion and Liberation movement.

Ironically, his assigned topic is “The person and a sense of limits.” It remains to be seen whether Galantino will project a new sense of his own limits, or whether his boldness will continue to be seen as a proxy for the pope’s own preferences.