ROME—United States Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at a Vatican conference Friday afternoon, playing to the house by defending the poor and the fight against climate change, while avoiding hot-button issues that put him at odds with the Catholic Church such as abortion and gay marriage.

“Some might feel that it is hopeless to fight the economic juggernaut, that once the market economy escaped the boundaries of morality it would be impossible to bring the economy back under the dictates of morality and the common good,” Sanders said.

“Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism,” he said. “He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world.”

Sanders was speaking at a conference on the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, an encyclical of St. John Paul II, which was at the time considered historical because it endorsed the market economy as the best way to foster “free human creativity in the economic sector,” without extolling laissez-faire capitalism.

The Vermont senator said that twenty-five years after the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the world has yet to acknowledge that Pope John Paul’s warnings about the excesses of unrestrained finances were prophetic.

“Twenty-five years after Centesimus Annus, speculation, illicit financial flows, environmental destruction, and the weakening of the rights of workers is far more severe than it was a quarter century ago,” he said.

“Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Sanders called the contemporary economy “immoral and unsustainable” because it’s led to the top one percent of the world’s population owning more wealth that the bottom 99 percent, while the combined assets of the wealthiest 60 people exceed those of more than 3.5 billion people.

Sanders left for the Vatican Thursday night hours after his latest presidential debate with rival Hillary Clinton, where he said that the opportunity to address the Vatican conference was “too meaningful” to pass up.

Upon Sanders’ arrival, Argentine Bishop Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, which organized the event, read a handwritten note from Pope Francis, who said he’d wanted to attend to greet the participants, but couldn’t because of his upcoming trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, scheduled for Saturday.

In his remarks, Sanders also decried that the “United States’ political system [has] doubled down on this reckless financial deregulation.”

“It has established a system in which billionaires can buy elections,” he said.

“Rather than an economy aimed at the common good, we have been left with an economy operated for the top 1 percent, who get richer and richer as the working class, the young and the poor fall further and further behind.”

Rocco Buttiglione, who’s long been credited as one of the ghost writers of Centesumus Annus, spoke in between Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Sanders.

“We just heard the Ecuadorean president, and we’ll now hear from a very important figure in American politics … if this becomes an occasion for Latin Americans and Americans to talk and understand each other better, then I believe we’ve achieved something for the good of the Church,” he said.

Correa was given 30 minutes, three times more than Sanders, and he was actually interrupted for running too long.

During his remarks, he spoke about the dangers of laissez-faire capitalism, saying that there’s a need for a “society with markets, not a market society.”

“The market is a servant,” he said, but it “makes a terrible master.”

Correa also spoke about the fact that in the early 20th century, Latin America was considered to be a super-power region, because it had more technology, better raw material and more qualified people, yet the region is constantly struggling.

In a mea culpa uncommon for a Latin American leader, Correa said that the fault lies partly at home.

“Latin America needs to undergo an immense cultural shift, because all of us have the right to eat the same, live the same, have a dignified, plentiful life,” he said.

Before leaving for the Vatican, Sanders had expressed his hopes of meeting Francis, which Vatican sources said Friday afternoon wasn’t on the pope’s schedule. The closest he got was sitting next to Bolivian President Evo Morales, who met Francis earlier on in the day and gave him several books on the benefits of coca leaves.

During a Q&A session, Sanders again praised Francis, saying the pope’s courage and words “have gone way beyond the Catholic Church … he’s very much an inspirational figure all over the world.”

“His willingness, in a very outspoken way, to raise the most profound issues that we have to deal with globally has had an extraordinary impact,” he said.

“The pope is absolutely right: Why are we ignoring the dispossessed?” Sanders asked.