Bernie Sanders will take a break from the campaign trail later this month to visit the Vatican, where he’ll participate in a conference about changes in politics and economic issues, including income inequality, which is the Vermont senator’s signature talking point.
There is no indication, however, that Sanders will meet Pope Francis during his brief stop in Rome.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told the ANSA news agency on Friday, “For the moment there is no expectation that there will also be a meeting with the pope.”
The gathering Sanders is slated to attend, co-hosted by two Vatican departments, will explore how the world has changed in the 25 years since the release of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical written to commemorate another encyclical written 100 years prior about the rights of workers, Rerum Novarum.
Sanders’ visit to Rome will come just days before what some are calling a make-or-break primary contest in New York, where about a quarter of voters identify as Catholic.
He said Friday he is “very excited” about the visit, and praised the pope, calling him “an extraordinary leader in making the world conscious of the levels of income and wealth inequality that exist on our planet.”
But one Vatican official slammed Sanders, accusing him of politicizing the event.
“Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons,” Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, told Bloomberg. “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.”
The self-described democratic socialist has praised Francis in the past, highlighting the pope’s frequent denunciations of greed and concern for the poor.
“What [Pope Francis] has also done is raise the issue of the worship of money, the idolatry of money, and to say maybe that’s not what human life should be about, and that is a very, very radical critique of the hypercapitalist system, world system, that we’re living in today,” he said in an interview with the Canadian Catholic network Salt + Light that aired in February.
“What the pope is saying is that human life, our existence, should be more than just the accumulation of more wealth,” he continued. “I agree with that,” noting that when it comes to his views on abortion, which go against Catholic teaching, “we just have to disagree.”
Sanders, who has won seven of the last eight Democratic contests, has twice taken his support for the pope’s agenda to the floor of the US Senate, including last February when he said the pope “showed great courage in raising issues that we very rarely hear discussed here in the Congress,” and quoted from Evangelii Gaudium, a letter written by Francis that some say is the blueprint of his papacy.
Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said in a statement Friday that Sanders would join other “world leaders” including Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa.
Sanders’ invitation to visit the Vatican came from Sorondo’s office, and not from Pope Francis personally.
Sanders and his rival for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both took to Twitter last month to praise the pope’s words on immigration, made during his February 17 visit to the US-Mexico border.
Michael J. O’Loughlin is a Chicago-based reporter and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.”