ROME – A pope is a universal figure who usually tries to stay above the fray of national politics, but that’s always complicated in his own backyard by the fact he’s also the Primate of Italy and the Bishop of Rome, so he faces constant pressure to be drawn into whatever’s bubbling here.

Right now,  the best example is a new draft Italian law against “homotransphobia,” which supporters style as a needed measure to protect a vulnerable minority, while critics, including Italy’s Catholic bishops, see as a possible infringement of free speech and religious freedom.

Though there have been several forms of the proposal, a newly unified text adopted this week would extend existing hate speech provisions in Italian law on ethnic, racial and religious grounds to four new categories: “sex, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.” If approved, the law would establish up to four additional years in prison for crimes motivated by “sexual stigma, in a particular way regrading homosexual or transsexual persons.”

The main proponent is a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies for the leftist Democratic Party named Alessandro Zan, who’s also a well-known LGBT+ activist and member of the gay rights group Arcigay. According to Zan, the bill is needed because of an “irrational difference” in existing law.

“Right now, holding up a gravely racist banner at a soccer stadium, at least in theory, is against the law,” Zan said, “but holding up the exact same banner directed at homosexual persons … is simply an expression of opinion.”

Italy’s powerful Catholic bishops’ conference, CEI, issued a statement in mid-June insisting that a new law is unnecessary.

“Not only is there no regulatory vacuum, but also there are no gaps which justify the urgency of new provisions,” the bishops wrote.

Moreover, the bishops warned, the language of the drafts being considered could end up criminalizing expressions of support for the traditional family founded on a union between a man and a woman.

“Rather than punishing discrimination, it would end up striking the expression of a legitimate opinion, as learned by the experience of the legal systems of other nations in which similar internal regulations have already been introduced,” the CEI statement said.

They cited proceedings in some countries against people “who believe the family requires a father and a mother,” and warned that the draft law could create a “crime of opinion.”

Some Catholic commentators have been far more forceful. Italian Catholic journalist Marco Tosatti, for instance, published a piece on the draft law last month under the headline, “The gravest attack on liberty in the Republican era,” meaning since the fall of the fascists.

On the other hand, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, Avvenire, has written that the bill shouldn’t just be dismissed as “LGBT propaganda,” and Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a figure very close to Pope Francis, tweeted on June 15 – five days after the bishops said there’s no need for a new law – that “it’s necessary to support norms that have the sense of defending vulnerable persons,” while adding that such measures should also “not be offensive to legitimate ideas.”

The passions aroused by the homotransphobia bill can be glimpsed from a borderline-surreal situation that unfolded in the southeastern town of Lizzano this past Tuesday, July 14, where a local pastor gave permission to hold a rosary “to defend the family against the threats that menace it, including the draft law against homotransphobia.”

As word got out, a small group of LGBT+ activists formed outside the church to voice support for the draft law, whereupon the pastor, Father Giuseppe Zito, called the military police, the carabinieri, who routinely provide security at public events. When they arrived, they began asking to see identity cards from the demonstrators.

At that point, the local mayor, a pediatrician and mother of four named Antonietta D’Oria, showed up, later saying it was unintentional – she had come to the neighborhood around the church, she said, to pick up a birthday cake for one of her daughters. Watching what was unfolding, she asked the carabinieri to stop checking IDs from the demonstrators and instead go into the church and establish who those people were.

In the end, everybody’s IDs were checked and the whole thing fizzled out. However, the idea of police asking for identification from people inside a church to pray the rosary brought howls of protest about infringements of religious freedom and possible violations of the Italian constitution.

Meanwhile, D’Oria, while insisting that hers is a purely secular role, nonetheless felt free to offer the parish some unsolicited advice.

“The church is a mother, and no mother would ever pray against her own children, no matter what their legitimate sexual orientation may be,” she said.

She also invoked Pope Francis: “It doesn’t seem to me that our great pope says the kinds of things used to justify the rosary,” D’Oria said.

To date Francis has stayed on the sidelines, avoiding even indirect commentary on the draft law. In effect, that’s created a situation in which both supporters and opponents cite the pope, supporters often pointing to “Who am I to judge?” while opponents appeal to the pope’s criticism of “gender theory” and his insistence that marriage is a bond between a man and a woman.

A parliamentary vote could come as early as July 27, which means the welter of competing claims about where the pope stands may grow louder, generating pressure to either take a position or explain why he’s sitting it out.

Here in Italy, pundits often talk about the prospect for an autunno caldo, meaning a “hot autumn,” when the political to-and-fro resumes after the August doldrums. This year, however, for Pope Francis, that “hot autumn” may already have arrived.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.