ROME – Will Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, be the next erstwhile darling of the Pope Francis era to fall from favor? The question may seem impertinent, but it’s being asked anyway amid a rare perceived contrast between Zuppi and the pontiff vis-à-vis Italian politics.

Such a development could carry consequences not merely for Zuppi’s ecclesiastical standing in the here and now, but also for his prospects as a papal contender in a future conclave.

Should some distance begin to emerge between Francis and Zuppi, it would make the 68-year-old prelate the latest in a fairly long list of former papal confidantes who, for one reason or another, appear to have been exiled from the inner circle.

They include the late Cardinal George Pell, the onetime tip of the spear for Francis’s financial reform, whose wings were clipped even before he faced, and ultimately was acquitted of, sexual abuse charges in his native Australia; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, once the pope’s key adviser on social justice issues, who was forced out as prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in 2021; Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, who was deposed as president of Caritas in 2023 and now plays a diminished role at the Dicastery for Evangelization; and Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the former vicar general for the Diocese of Rome, who’s now marking time as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

The emblematic case in point, of course, remains Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, once the pope’s right-hand man as his chief of staff, who was not only removed from his job but stripped of his privileges as a cardinal, indicted for fraud, convicted by a Vatican tribunal, and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.

In most ways, Zuppi seems an unlikely candidate to join this fellowship of the fallen.

Not only is his background in the Community of Sant’Egidio, by far Francis’s favorite among the “new movements” in the Church, but Francis gave Zuppi the historically influential post in Bologna in 2015, chose him as president of the Italian conference in 2022, and also tapped Zuppi in 2023 as his personal peace envoy for the war in Ukraine.

Short of pointing a finger at Zuppi and publicly declaring, “This is my beloved son, upon whom my favor rests,” it’s hard to think of anything else a pontiff might do to signal that someone has his trust.

Yet the question of whether that will continue to be the case has come up of late, given a recent public spat between Zuppi and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni over a proposed reform of the Italian constitution to allow for the direct election of the prime minister.

Currently, Italian premiers are chosen by the country’s fractious parliament. It’s a system which some observers blame for creating chronic political chaos, with a total of 70 governments over the last 77 years. Passing the reform, known in Italian as the premierato, is a key priority of Meloni’s conservative coalition, but is opposed by most left-leaning factions on the grounds that it’s both unworkable and undemocratic.

Zuppi seemed to enter the fray on May 23 with comments during a news conference amid a plenary assembly of the Italian bishops, in which Zuppi said some prelates expressed “concern” about the proposal.

“Institutional equilibriums always should be touched only with great care,” he said.

“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,” Zuppi said. “Therefore, my hope is that whatever emerges won’t be something contingent, that is, that it won’t be partisan.”

Since everyone knows that the debate is, at present, highly partisan, Zuppi’s comments were therefore taken as a fairly clear rebuke to backers of the reform, above all to Meloni.

In response, Meloni used a May 30 appearance on Italian television to fire back, noting that the Vatican isn’t a parliamentary republic and thus suggesting to the bishops – i.e., Zuppi – that their concerns are misplaced.

The line was widely spun in the Italian media as proof of a burgeoning conflict between Italy’s most important secular leader in Meloni, and its top ecclesiastical official in Zuppi.

What makes all this relevant in terms of Zuppi’s standing is the widely held perception that despite Pope Francis’s general reputation as a political progressive, he actually enjoys a fairly warm relationship with Meloni.

Last year, for instance, the prime minister and the pope shared a stage at a major Roman event on the family, where Francis essentially gave a thumbs-up to efforts by Meloni’s government to boost Italy’s flagging fertility rate.

In April, Francis allowed Meloni to break the news that he would become the first pontiff ever to take part in a meeting of the G7, when the group meets later this month in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Typically the Vatican announces the pope’s travel plans, but in this case it was Melloni who presented the pope’s presence in a video message in April.

The pope will take part in a discussion during the June 13-15 G7 summit on artificial intelligence, building on the Vatican’s 2020 “Rome Call for AI Ethics.”

“I’m convinced that the presence of His Holiness will make a decisive contribution to defining a regulatory, ethical and cultural framework for artificial intelligence,” Meloni said, adding that Francis’s presence “brings prestige to our nation and to the entire Group of Seven.”

Also in April, the Vatican released the document Dignitas Infinita on a wide range of ethical questions, but in Italy most headlines focused on its criticism of surrogate motherhood – or, as the Italians call it, “wombs for rent.” Opposing surrogacy is a cornerstone of Meloni’s domestic agenda, which led one Italian daily to headline its coverage of the Vatican document “Bergoglio Votes for Meloni,” using the pontiff’s given name.

For her part, Meloni rarely misses an opportunity for a photo op with Francis, who always seems happy to accommodate. The two met most recently during the pope’s May 26 Mass for the inaugural World Day of Children.

None of this necessarily means that Francis is uniformly favorable to Meloni, nor does it automatically imply he would disagree with Zuppi’s take on the proposed constitutional reform – if, that is, he has an opinion on the issue at all.

Nonetheless, the episode marks the first occasion that observers have detected any real daylight between Zuppi and Francis, however indirect and subtle. Since we’ve seen such tiny cracks widen into rifts before, it’s at least worth watching to see if this one too starts to expand – especially since it might reframe perceptions of Zuppi as a logical “continuity” candidate when the time comes to pick a successor.