Why Is Bernie Sanders Going to the Vatican?
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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