ROME — Given their home court advantage, it’s natural that nobody covers the Vatican quite like the Italian press. For most countries, the Vatican beat is like football, something to pay attention to maybe once a week, usually on Sunday. For Italians, it’s more akin to baseball — there’s a game every day, and sometimes a doubleheader.

One of the more provocative recent pieces of Vatican commentary in the Italian press came May 11 from Massimo Gramellini, who writes the “Morning Coffee” column for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record. The intriguing headline was Francesco il guastafeste, which roughly translates as “Francis the Party-Pooper.”

Gramellini was reacting to a May 10 talk by the pontiff at a Roman event titled “General States of the Birth Rate,” which has become an annual event devoted to addressing Italy’s fertility crisis. Last year, according to the official national statistics office, Italy set another historical low with just 379,000 live births, while demographers say that at least 500,000 births a year would be necessary to avoid a dangerous imbalance between young and old in the country.

The May 10 event made headlines in large part because of heated scuffles in the streets of Rome between police and youthful protesters, who were objecting to the presence of Italian Family Minister Eugenia Roccella.

The protesters identify Roccella with a recent move by the conservative government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to permit the presence of pro-life groups at publicly funded family planning clinics where women seeking an abortion are required to obtain a certificate attesting to the state of their pregnancy.

In the eyes of the opposition, allowing pro-life consulters to set up shop in the clinics amounts to an assault on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Four police officers and at least one young female demonstrator were treated for minor injuries as a result of the fracas, while inside the meeting Roccella was shouted down and eventually left without giving her talk.

Never one to be upstaged, however, Pope Francis nevertheless managed to make waves himself with his own remarks, in which, among other things, he encouraged more family-friendly policies from governments, such as ensuring that women don’t have to choose between work and raising children, or that young couples are able to afford a home.

The line that really got tongues wagging, however, came as Francis was describing the dreary demographic landscape of contemporary Europe, marked by rapid aging and plummeting birthrates.

“How is it possible?” the pope asked. “Why can’t this hemorrhage of life be stopped?”

Then, departing from his prepared text, the pope added a zinger: “Here’s a fact an expert on demography told me: Right now, the most profitable investments are the manufacture of arms and contraceptives — one destroys life, the other prevents life. These are the investments that make the most money, it’s ugly.”

(As an aside, have you ever noticed that when Francis wants to say something truly incendiary, he’ll often try to distance himself from the fallout by attributing it to somebody else? For instance, when he said NATO might have helped trigger the war in Ukraine by “barking at Russia’s door,” he said he’d heard that from an unnamed “wise” diplomat. When he recently joked that some people in the Vatican might be praying against him, he attributed the quip to an 87-year-old woman he met on a Vatican fence line. Here, he’s quoting an unidentified demographer to equate birth control with weaponry. Moral of the story: When the pope traffics in anonymous quotations, watch out.)

As Gramellini noted, the pope’s comment generated consternation among extremists of both left and right.

“Will the pacifist left, which has elected Francis as its undisputed leader, be able to digest his juxtaposition of a machine gun with a pill? What about the portion of the right that’s contrary to the Russian invaders, but favorable to the invasion of the pro-life consulters?”

In effect, Gramellini argued, Francis is a living challenge to political fault lines.

“He helps unmask the limits of the grotesque contraposition, which by now is virtually anthropological, between the two extremes: ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ Francis demonstrates that it’s possible to be oneself without adhering to prefabricated schemes and parroting automatic slogans and withered prejudices,” he wrote.

“Like many people, I have different ideas from the pope about contraceptives, and also partly about weapons, especially when they serve to defend yourself from guys like Putin,” Gramellini concluded.

“However, it’s impossible not to feel respect for a man who doesn’t try to please everyone, even at the cost of not completely pleasing anybody,” he said.

Therein lies the real point about the pro-fertility push, which is rapidly becoming a defining theme of this phase of Francis’ papacy.

You can always tell when a subject has truly captured the pope’s imagination, because he generates a new soundbite, which he then repeats ad nauseam. In the case of the fertility issue, that trope has become his lament about a “veterinary culture” in contemporary Europe, especially Italy, in which people prefer cats and dogs to human children.

(So strong has the rhetorical drumbeat become that Il Sole 24 Ore, more or less Italy’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, did a statistical analysis in 2022 and concluded the pope has a point: In Italy’s 20 regions, there actually is an inverse relationship between the number of pet dogs per every 100 persons and the birthrate.)

As Gramellini suggests, the pontiff’s growing obsession with the birthrate alarms his progressive base, and not merely because it places him uncomfortably close to the sort of conservative, pro-family and pro-life movements which the left distrusts.

It’s also because concern for Europe’s low birthrate has also long been part of the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, which holds that Islam is winning the demographic battle for control of the future. Anti-Muslim hawks love to cite Yasser Arafat’s famous dictum that his most powerful weapon is the womb of the Arab woman, and the idea that Francis, who’s made outreach to Islam a cornerstone of his interfaith agenda, might be lending credibility to such concerns won’t be seen favorably in many progressive circles.

Meanwhile, militant pro-lifers, who tend to be single-issue voters when it comes to abortion, have a hard time accepting the way this pope insists on linking the defense of life with other social concerns, including war and peace.

There’s no indication, however, that any of this particularly concerns Francis, who seems determined to continue his pro-fertility campaign regardless of whom it may annoy.

In that sense, this maverick pope is once again living up to his reputation as a lightning rod … though with apologies to Gramellini, not really a “party-pooper” — because, let’s face it, things on the Vatican beat would be a lot less fun without him continually stirring the pot.