Bernie Heads to the Vatican

The senator from Vermont will speak about creating a “moral economy.”

Brian Frank / Reuters

Updated April 8, 4:30 p.m. EST

A socialist, Jewish, “not particularly religious” senator from Vermont will soon make his debut at the Vatican. On Friday, Bernie Sanders announced that in a week or so, he will be speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a scholarly body that’s part of Catholic Church in Rome.

“I was very moved by the invitation,” he said during an interview on Morning Joe. “People say Bernie Sanders is radical? Uh-uh. Read what the pope is writing.”

There is a somewhat uncanny overlap between the way Bernie and Francis talk about economic issues. One of the first pieces of writing the pope released during his tenure, Evangelii Gaudium, is all about the greed and fundamental corruption at the heart of the global economy. Both men speak with passion about poverty and talk about labor and wages in moral terms. And Sanders has often praised the pope, including after the pontiff addressed the U.S. Congress in September.

Even so, the simple fact of Sanders’s visit is remarkable: As a fairly progressive non-Catholic, he’s a curious choice of a speaker for a group of academically minded priests. In the middle of a tight race to the Democratic convention and presidential nomination, it’s also striking that he’s taking precious time off the campaign trail for a jaunt to Rome.

It might also seem like the Vatican is getting involved in a controversial presidential race—not just to throw shade at Donald Trump, which the pope has done before, but to tacitly show favor to one of the Democratic candidates. But the internal politics of the Church, as it turns out, can be rather complicated. After the speaking gig became public, Bloomberg ran an interview with Margaret Archer, the president of the academy, who said that Sanders had approached the Vatican to solicit an invite, showing “monumental discourtesy” in making a Church event into something political. The chancellor of the body, Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, denied that in an interview with Reuters, though, saying that it was his idea to invite Sanders.

Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor who is presenting at the event, said in a phone interview that he helped the Vatican reach out to Bernie Sanders in March, and he doesn’t know why Archer alleged that the Sanders campaign initiated the gig. “The academy sent the invitation, it’s pure and simple,” he said. “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.” A representative who works with Sachs also passed along an official invitation from Sanchez Sorondo to Sanders dated on March 30. But even though the invite appeared to come from an official Church body, that doesn’t mean it came from Pope Francis, and a spokesperson for the Vatican said it hasn’t been confirmed whether the senator and the pontiff will have a sit-down in Rome.

This visit comes at an interesting time for the Church. As Sanders pointed out in his MSNBC interview, he differs from Francis on issues including contraception and gay rights; just this morning, the pope released a document reaffirming the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and support of traditional family structures. At times during the campaign, Sanders has seemed to have a single-minded focus on his economic platform, strongly prioritizing those views over issues from foreign policy to race to women’s advancement.

But although the venue isn’t much like the small-town high-school gymnasiums where Sanders has spent much of his time in recent weeks, this is another moment of Bernie being Bernie: taking any chance he can to decry the ills of the capitalism and the global economy, and to advance his vision of social justice.