VATICAN CITY — There was no formal meeting with Pope Francis on Friday, just a handwritten note from the Holy Father, expressing his apologies to Bernie Sanders and other conference attendees at the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences for not stopping by before he heads to Greece on Saturday.
Sanders got little political return from his whirlwind trip to Rome, having left the campaign trail at an inopportune time and failing to receive any face time with the spiritual leader of American Catholics.
But his appearance at a Vatican conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II to mark the end of the Cold War signaled his arrival as a globally respected voice on inequality and economic injustice, providing him with a stature that he couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of his long-shot presidential campaign. His message in the Eternal City was essentially the same stump speech Sanders delivers back home, only now it warrants a crush of foreign media attention, and puts the small-state senator in company with a pontiff he’s admired from afar for several years.
The moment caught up to Sanders while speaking to a teeming mass of reporters outside Perugino’s Gate in the walls of Vatican City on Friday after his 15-minute speech here — an address in which he cast his political message in papal terms: “When I received this invitation — yeah, I know it’s taking me away from the campaign trail for a day, but when I received this information, it was so moving to me that it was something that I could just simply not refuse to attend,” said a clearly emotional Sanders.
The timing of the 40-hour trip couldn’t have been worse, as he was reminded in Rome by the release of a New York poll Friday showing him trailing Hillary Clinton by 17 points just days from the primary that could decide his fate. His allies worried about the possible effects of his two-day absence from the campaign trail. Everything about the trip was a hurried affair, from the questions raised about who exactly invited him to the finishing touches he put on the speech during his dead-of-night charter flight to Rome from New York.
But, as Sanders alluded to in his news conference, there was no way he would pass it up since he views Pope Francis’ message as a validation of his own, say people close to him, on issues from economic inequality to climate change.
His interest in Pope Francis’ work dates back at least to February 2015, when it was brought to Sanders’ attention in his Senate office that some of the pope’s recent speeches sounded similar in spirit to the message Sanders had been pushing long before he announced his presidential bid.
Before long, he took to the Senate floor for a 15-minute speech dedicated to Francis. “To my mind, in the last few years the pope has played an extraordinary role on issues of enormous consequence, on issues that impact every man and woman and child, not just in our country but on the planet. And he has shown great courage in raising issues that we very rarely hear discussed here in the Congress or in parliaments around the world,” the senator said, before quoting the pontiff extensively.
The pope’s name popped up repeatedly during Sanders’ much-heralded 2015 speech at Georgetown University during which he spelled out the tenets of his own Democratic Socialist ideology.
“We need to create a culture which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money. We cannot accept a nation in which billionaires compete as to the size of their super-yachts, while children in America go hungry and veterans sleep out in the streets,” he said at the time before repeating a line he rolled out again on Friday at the Vatican. “Let us not forget what Pope Francis has so elegantly stated: ‘We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an old economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”
As a candidate — perhaps the most secular-minded in either party — Sanders has sprinkled his daily campaigning with references to the pope, invoking him far more than any of his rivals for the White House. Earlier this month, for example, he answered a question from the New York Daily News editorial board about which three American corporations are “destroying the national fabric” with an invocation of Francis’ take on a “moral economy.”
At a televised town hall in Columbus, Ohio, the previous month, he answered a query about coal and natural gas jobs by quoting Francis’ encyclical on the environment — a document that has particularly resonated with him, associates say. And when he visited the U.S. border with Mexico while campaigning in Arizona in March, the candidate whose Twitter accounts frequently refer to Francis quoted the pope’s insistence that we should be building bridges, not walls.
“A lot of socialists approach it from a ‘scientific’ — meaning Marxist — calculation of surplus capital,” said Terry Bouricius, a Sanders friend and a former member of Vermont’s House of Representatives, explaining the candidate’s draw to the Vatican message of equality. “Bernie has always expressed it both privately and publicly in the same framework of: It’s simply immoral to have some people not house and feed their children while some people live in the lap of luxury.”
John Franco, a Burlington lawyer who has counted Sanders as a friend for decades, noted that the senator has had an interest in papal teaching on social justice since his time as mayor of Burlington. Back then, facing criticism from residents who felt his economic beliefs were “extreme, or out of the mainstream,” Sanders sought the counsel of friends and advisers to talk about how to better sell his message. The response he received, said Franco, was to look to the example of Pope John Paul II, who speaks the same language and also talks about the importance of an inclusive economy.
“The admiration for the Vatican’s economic situation has been standing for 30, 35 years,” added Franco “[Starting] then, it was part of his narrative. Part of his explanation about his worldview.”
Nonetheless, people who interact with the candidate on a day-to-day basis were largely surprised by the invitation to the Vatican conference, even if they weren’t surprised by his decision to accept — according to them, he didn’t feel like he could possibly turn it down.
In Rome, standing beside adviser Jeffrey Sachs — who helped arrange the trip — Sanders told reporters his interest in the pope’s politics is entwined with his policy thinking, explaining that Francis’ encyclical on the environment helped inform his work on the Senate Committee on the Environment.
“Bernie Sanders is not a Catholic theologian, he’s a Jewish Democratic Socialist, so I don’t think Bernie Sanders is reading the fine print of Catholic social teaching or the catechism,” said John Gehring, the Catholic Program director at Faith in Public Life, a Washington advocacy group, noting that the pope’s July speech in Bolivia in particular — about how the future is in the hands of people, not elites — sounded very similar to Sanders’ central campaign pitch. “But I do think he has an appreciation for how the pope can broaden out the conversation about inequality.”
Accordingly, Sanders’ friends see a parallel with how Sanders talks about his own spirituality — through social and historical lenses — despite theological differences and the fact that the Vatican is still starkly at odds with many Democrats, Sanders included, on a range of social issues. It’s a point Sanders acknowledges but often skims over when praising the pope.
After he delivered a speech sprinkled with references to Wall Street and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, then invoked Goldman Sachs and the state of Detroit’s schools — just like in his everyday campaign speech — in the conference discussion, it was easy to see why Sanders himself made the call to accept the invitation to Rome. He gave a hint of why last week.
“There are people who think that Bernie Sanders is radical,” he said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “Read what the pope is writing.”
Powered by WPeMatico