As Bernie Sanders heads to Rome Friday to participate in a Vatican-sponsored conference, Catholics active in Democratic circles are split on whether or not the visit will help the Vermont senator’s chances at winning the White House – or whether it could politicize the Vatican during a contentious US election.
Sanders is scheduled to deliver a 10-minute speech touching on themes of income equality, and it remains unclear what the prospects may be for a brief meeting with Pope Francis.
“I think it was a mistake by the Vatican to invite someone running for president of the United States,” said Christopher Jolly Hale, head of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a D.C.-based organization that promotes Catholic social justice teachings.
“It hurts the appeal of Francis’s leadership when it’s made to look he’s endorsing some candidates over others, particularly when’s that’s not the case,” he said.
“Whoever made the decision did a disservice to Francis’s papacy,” Hale continued. “That being said, I don’t think it will make any real difference in the outcome of the election.”
But James Zogby, a Catholic who is founder and president of the Arab American Institute and a foreign policy adviser to Sanders, dismissed concerns that the invitation would harm Francis.
“I think that the pope’s agenda has already been politicized in the U.S.,” he said. “From his very first day as head of the Church, he was very clearly a pope with a religious message that was going to be construed as a political message by many.”
Zogby said he was “agnostic” as to whether the visit was politically savvy, but he said the invitation, at least, made sense.
“I think that the issue is that Bernie’s positions and Pope Francis’ positions have been very similar, so it didn’t surprise me that Bernie would want to go to this, or that someone at the Vatican would want to invite him,” he said.
“If I were putting on a conference on this issue, I think he would be a logical person to invite,” he continued.
The person responsible for that invitation was head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences Argentinean Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who was visiting the United States this week.
When news of the invitation broke last Friday, just hours after the pope released his long-awaited exhortation on the family, many media outlets erroneously reported that Francis himself had personally invited Sanders.
Margaret S. Archer, president of the Social Sciences Academy, suggested in an interview that Sanders had broken protocol by asking for an invitation to the conference, a claim quickly refuted by Sánchez Sorondo.
Joining Sanders at the Vatican conference will be Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Columbia University Earth Institute. Like Zogby, Sachs is also a Sanders foreign policy adviser, and he has ties to the Vatican, most recently being tapped to promote the pope’s climate encyclical, Laudato Si.
Some politically conservative Catholics have voiced frustration that the Vatican invited Sanders, who supports abortion rights, saying that the invitation makes it more difficult to persuade Catholic colleges and universities in the United States not to give platforms or honorary degrees to politicians who support abortion.
Thomas Peters, a Catholic active in conservative circles, for example, Tweeted last week, “Makes it kind of difficult for US bishops to enforce the ‘no platform for pro-abortion politicians’ when a Vatican bureaucrat gives one.”
The most recent target of conservative ire: The University of Notre Dame, which will honor former Speaker of the House John Boehner along with Vice President Joe Biden, with the prestigious Laetare Medal next month. Some are upset that Biden, who supports abortion rights, will be given the award.
(For his part, Biden announced Wednesday that he, too, will visit the Vatican, on April 28 to promote the Obama administration’s anti-cancer efforts.)
Though some Vatican officials are reportedly trying to arrange a meeting between Sanders and Francis Friday, a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday it was unlikely – but he did not rule it out.
The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, is trying to tamp down the political undertones of the senator’s Vatican visit.
“Some things are just not about politics,” Michael Briggs, Sanders’ communications director, told Politico.
“He will be gone for a very short period, for a very important meeting at the Vatican,” he continued. “He will probably spend less time away from New York this week than Hillary Clinton spends going to fundraisers in Florida, Virginia and California. He’s taking New York very seriously.”
About a third of voters in New York State are Catholic, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Two other heavily Catholic states, Rhode Island and Connecticut, vote April 26.
In a race that began with at least half a dozen Catholic candidates, all of whom have since dropped out, the Jewish Sanders emerged as the most vocal supporter of the pope’s agenda.
Sanders has 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.
Sanders’ visit comes just four days before Democrats head to the polls in New York, where polls show Sanders trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits in a state that some say is make-or-break for the Vermont senator.
Michael J. O’Loughlin is a Chicago-based reporter and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.”