Bernie Sanders announced proudly on Friday that the Vatican had invited him to speak at an upcoming conference in Vatican City, and he seemed to imply that the invitation had been issued by Pope Francis himself.
The Vermont senator’s presidential campaign emailed reporters on Friday morning to announce that he had been invited to the event, a conference on “social, economic and environmental issues.” The conference, organized by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, will be held on April 15 — just days before the crucial New York primary, in which Sanders is hoping to upset his rival Hillary Clinton in her home state.
The conference also includes two controversial leftist Latin American presidents, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia, as well as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.
Sanders appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” shortly after the announcement, clearly relishing in the reflected glow of one of the most admired men in the world, and someone with whom he shares a good deal of ideological overlap.
“How did this come about?” co-host Mika Brzezinski asked.
“It was an invitation from the Vatican,” Sanders replied.
“That’s kind of impressive,” Brzezinski said.
“It is,” Sanders replied.
“I am a big, big fan of the pope,” he continued. “Obviously, there are areas where we disagree, on like women’s rights or gay rights, but he has played an unbelievable role — an unbelievable role — of injecting the moral consequence into the economy.”
But the invitation was actually made by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the pontifical academy, an autonomous institution that receives some funding from the Holy See but is not officially part of it.
In a March 30 letter inviting Sanders to the event, Sánchez Sorondo wrote, “On behalf of the President, Professor Margaret Archer, the Organizers, and as Chancellor, I am very happy to invite you to attend the meeting on ‘Centesimus Annus: 25 Years Later.’ The meeting, which is humanitarian in its objects, will be held at the Casina Pio IV, the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, from 15 to 16 April 2016.”
But Archer, an English academic, appears not to have known about the invitation. On Friday, she accused Sanders of “monumental discourtesy” for not contacting her, telling Bloomberg that he was the one who had made the first move regarding the meeting — and “for obvious reasons.”
“I think in a sense he may be going for the Catholic vote, but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly — not that he will,” Archer said. Sanders’ use of the meeting is “clearly a pretext,” she added. “There are just 20 academics and there will be nothing of policy relevance.”
It was not clear why Archer’s account differed from Sánchez Sorondo’s letter, and requests for comment to her office were not returned.
But Sánchez Sorondo told Bloombergthat he had indeed invited Sanders, explaining, “We are interested in having him because we have two presidents coming from Latin America, I thought it would be good to have an authoritative voice from North America.”
The Sanders campaign referred POLITICO to Michael Shank, a media consultant who works with Sachs and said he “occasionally” handles press relations for Vatican conferences.
Reports that Sanders had said that Pope Francis himelf had invited him were incorrect, Shank said, but he argued that the invitation had effectively come from the Vatican. “The PASS is part of the Vatican. So the senator is right when he says the Vatican invited him,” he said.
Adding to the confusion, Sachs said that he had helped the Vatican arrange the invitation to Sanders. “[But] the academy sent the invitation, it’s pure and simple,” he told The Atlantic. “A lot of people in the Vatican respect him a lot. He is speaking in the same kind of moral themes that Pope Francis, and the social teachings of the Church, promote, which is a moral economy.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, told POLITICO, “My information is very simple: the invitation came from the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences for the Meeting ‘Centesimus Annus — 25 Years Later.’ Therefore we cannot say that it is an invitation from the pope, but from a Vatican institution.”
Sanders also clarified to The New York Times that it hadn’t been confirmed whether there would be a one-on-one sit-down meeting with the pontiff himself.
Sanders’ senior strategist, Tad Devine, told MSNBC he couldn’t comment on the mix-up because he didn’t have all the details.
“But I’ll tell you this: I know the politics of the New York primary are extraordinarily complicated,” he said. “As a lifelong practicing Roman Catholic, I can’t even imagine how complicated the politics of the Vatican are, so I’m gonna find out before I say anything on that issue.”
The pontifical academy was founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II but is an autonomous body. It maintains close ties to the Roman Catholic Church. According to its website, “For its operating expenses, the Academy receives financial support from a special Foundation for the Promotion of the Social Sciences and from donations and gifts. At present, when these means are not sufficient, the Holy See covers the rest of the budget.”
News of the invitation comes as the pope releases new guidelines that encourage the church to show more understanding to modern realities. In the guidelines, for example, the pope calls for gay people to be respected, though he vigorously opposes gay marriage in the doctrine.
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