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Why Is Bernie Sanders Going to the Vatican?

Sanders’ intentions seem to be more fan boy for Pope Francis — whom he will not meet — than presidential

Pope Francis; Bernie; vatican

Bernie Sanders flew to the Vatican Thursday night to attend an academic conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's economic encyclical.

Scott Olson/Getty

Rather than campaigning in New York in the final days before the state’s critical primary, Bernie Sanders jetted off to Rome Thursday night to attend an academic conference at the Vatican. The conference, weirdly enough, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of an economic encyclical penned by the anti-Communist Pope John Paul II to address economic reforms in Europe’s newly former Soviet bloc countries.

What’s a nice social democrat doing in a place like that? Chalk it up to political naiveté fueled by the mania surrounding the current pope.

Since Vatican officials announced the plan last week, the move has been embroiled in the sort of controversy that percolates only out of the byzantine world of Vatican politics, replete with a gendered contretemps over how, exactly, Sanders got invited to attend a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in the first place.

But the palace intrigue, not uncommon in matters of Vatican invitations (e.g., the Kim Davis affair), has obscured what really deserves attention with regard to the Sanders visit: just how politically tone deaf and pointless it is. Although Sanders’ reason for attending appears to hinge on the current pope’s celebrity, Francis will not be in attendance, and Vatican officials say Sanders will have no meeting with him. It looks, then, like Sanders is putting on a likely expensive and time-consuming show for little gain.

Is he trying to make political hay out of religious pandering? Is he crossing a constitutional line by seeming to endorse a particular religion or religious view? Sanders has admitted to being inspired by the pope and that he longed for a papal photo op — more evidence his intentions are more fan boy than presidential.

Sanders has mostly gotten a pass on this front because his affection for Francis seems linked to their simpatico economic views, rather than an effort to sway the Catholic vote in the Democratic primary. He seems to be taking advantage of how Francis is seen as a global moral figure, dispensing proclamations about economic inequality that, although steeped in Catholic social teaching that has been around far longer than the contraception ban, has suddenly warmed the ecumenical cockles of a social democrat’s heart.

Sanders has latched on to Francis’ statements on the evils of economic inequality with the swooning, anti-wonky awe that has marked the pope’s remarkable global popularity, even among non-Catholics. On the section of his campaign website addressing inequality issues, Sanders quotes Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which, when it was released in 2013, drew attention as an economic manifesto rather than, as it was intended, a call to renewal for the world’s Catholics.

Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, was cheered by the American Catholic left as revitalizing Catholic economic justice teaching at a time when the church’s U.S. hierarchy has been in the grip of American culture wars. But out of 288 numbered paragraphs in the document, only about a dozen directly address economic issues, particularly inequality, the evils of consumerism and what Francis calls a “‘throw away’ culture.”

Because of Francis’ celebrity status, though, outside the Catholic world Evengelii Gaudium is remembered for its critique of trickle-down economics, not as a call to Catholic spiritual renewal. In the context of that throw-away culture, Francis wrote, “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

As a basic critique, the paragraph assessing free-market economics is a pretty decent statement, and you can see how Sanders, who has praised the justice-focused teachings of his own religion, Judaism, would be drawn to it. But nowhere does Evangelii Gaudium propose or even suggest a political or economic alternative. That’s the stuff of governing, of course, and nowhere does the exhortation suggest a law or regulation that might fix rampant free-market inequities. In fact, Francis discusses passing laws only once in Evangelii Gaudium, and it’s to criticize legal abortion: “Nowadays efforts are made to deny them [unborn children] their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.” And on that front, Francis exhibits a crucial misunderstanding of the laws that have passed, at least in the United States, which prevent women from getting abortions, not the other way around.

Sanders has made clear that he parts ways with Francis on abortion, and on the Church’s opposition to LGBT equality, but for many Catholics the social issues cannot be unraveled from the economic ones. Although American liberals have gleefully rubbed their hands together over how Francis sticks it to conservative economic orthodoxy, the Francis swoon is often conveniently blind to how gender discrimination and lack of access to reproductive health care underlies the economic inequality of half the world’s population. That point is not lost on feminist theologians who point out that theology has economic consequences — perhaps not the kind Sanders envisions.

For Sanders, who has faced criticism for being insufficiently attuned to these issues in the service of his economic platform, and for lacking the specifics of how, economically or politically, he would make that platform a reality, the Vatican visit is terrible timing; it only reinforces those criticisms. Worse, the possible upsides to the visit are, from this side of the Atlantic, difficult to discern.

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