ROME – From the beginning, Italy has set the pace for much of the rest of the world regarding the coronavirus. Outside China, the pandemic broke out here first, and the government responded with the lockdowns and social distancing measures that have since become standard practice elsewhere.

Italy also led the way in terms of a church/state compact, with bishops shutting down public Masses immediately after the government decreed a national lockdown and, so far, taking their cues from the state about what to do when.

There are signs, however, that compact may be breaking down.

Sunday night, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the country’s long-awaited “Phase 2,” which is the phrase here for a gradual loosening of the quarantine. Despite pleas from the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI, to include authorization for public liturgies, Conte’s decree permits only funerals to be celebrated again beginning May 4, and only under tight restrictions.

No date was given for the regular celebration of the Mass.

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In response, CEI issued a strongly worded note that appeared to threaten that if they don’t get a satisfactory response from the government, the bishops may be prepared to assert the authority afforded under religious freedom provisions of the Italian constitution and act on their own.

In comments to Crux the spokesman for CEI, Father Ivan Maffeis, was tactful, saying it’s “too early” to float such possibilities.

“We trust the negotiations will continue in the spirit of cordial and constructive collaboration which has marked these difficult weeks,” Maffeis said, though it was difficult not to detect an implied “but” in those words – but if the negotiations break down, then all bets are off.

A couple elements of the situation are worth noting. First, it’s arguable Conte may need the bishops more than they need him.

For some time, there’s been speculation in the Italian media about moves to oust Conte, with some suggesting he doesn’t have the chops to lead the country’s recovery from the crisis and others pointing to open conflicts between the Prime Minister and members of his own coalition over issues such as Conte’s refusal to embrace the controversial European Stability Mechanism as a means of crisis relief.

Some have pointed to former European Central Bank head and former CEO of the Bank of Italy Mario Draghi as best equipped to lead a government of “broad consensus” that could do the heavy lifting which will be required as the realities of recession set in.

Paul Krugman did once call Draghi, 72, “arguably the greatest central banker of modern times,” but there are plenty of other names in the air.

If he wants to survive, Conte will need friends, and up to this point the perception has been that he’s got solid support in the Catholic world. Among other things, he’s a believer himself, a devotee of Padre Pio, and he’s worked hard to cultivate good relationships with both the Vatican and with CEI. If he starts to lose Catholic backing, Conte’s future may be all the more uncertain.

The bishops, on the other hand, are in a strong negotiating position, because Conte and his team need their support to make their anti-virus measures stick. From the beginning, the cornerstone of those measures has been avoiding assembramenti, meaning public gatherings, and taken together, Sunday Masses in Italy are undoubtedly the single biggest weekly assembramento in the country.

Should the bishops decide to act autonomously, it’s difficult to imagine other groups in society wouldn’t follow suit, and quickly any sense of national cohesion might well evaporate.

That’s not to say the bishops have nothing to lose, because they’re heavily dependent on income from Italy’s church tax system, which every year deposits well more than $1 billion in their accounts. Early on there were calls from some parties to eliminate that funding, diverting it to crisis relief, but CEI largely neutralized the push by deciding to spend $225 million on supporting hospitals and other first response facilities.

In any event, it’s unlikely Conte would be the leader who shuts off the spigot, in part because Italians still tend to trust the church to deliver social services more than they do the state.

Second, the politics of the debate are interesting here, because they don’t break down left/right. The ministers in Conte’s own government most openly critical were members of the Italia Viva party founded by former leftist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

“I can’t stay silent regarding the incomprehensible decision to not concede the possibility of celebrating religious functions,” said Elena Bonetti, Conte’s Minister of the Family.

“I don’t think it’s any excuse to refer to the rigidity of the opinion of the technical-scientific committee,” she said. “It’s the job of political leadership to protect the integral well-being of the country, and religious liberty is among our most fundamental freedoms.”

The head of the mainstream left-wing Democratic Party’s group in the Chamber of Deputies, Graziano Delrio, likewise broke ranks, despite the fact the Democrats are in Conte’s coalition.

“I believe it would be right to listen to the solicitations of the episcopal conference and review the ban on religious functions as of May 4,” Delrio said. “It’s got to be possible to permit participation by the faithful with full respect for distancing and the necessary precautions.”

Unlike in the US, where religion tends to be partisan, all major parties here have a Catholic wing, and whenever there’s an issue of interest to the Church, legislators are typically freed up by party chiefs to vote their conscience. Perhaps the growing vocal dissent on Mass closures from left-leaning politicians is an attempt not to allow right-wing populist Matteo Salvini to monopolize the cause, which would suggest they think it’s an issue with traction.

If so, that may deal the bishops yet another card, and it will be interesting to see how they play it in those “cordial and constructive” negotiations to which their spokesman referred.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.