Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders may not have had the chance to meet Pope Francis when he jetted to Rome after Thursday night’s rancorous Democratic debate, but he quoted Francis so often in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Science on Friday that his audience could have been excused for thinking the Pontiff was in the room.
(Update: After this story was published, Sanders reported that he had received word Pope Francis was willing to meet briefly with him before leaving for a foreign trip. The two met in the foyer of the Pope's residence for five minutes early Saturday morning, along with an interpreter, Sanders' wife Jane, and a Sanders advisor. There were no photographs taken.)
The decision by Sanders to briefly abandon the campaign trail to appear in Rome was subject to frantic speculation after it was announced earlier this week. Was it a huge mistake for Sanders to leave the country just as New York, the state of his birth, was preparing to vote in the presidential primary? Or was it a huge opportunity for Sanders -- who shares the Pope’s concern about increasing economic equality and the way that modern economies tend to marginalize the poor and uneducated -- to associate himself with the immensely popular head of the Roman Catholic Church?
Sander evidently gambled on the second, and left absolutely no doubt about how close he feels to Francis on issues of economic inequality and questions of social justice. His prepared remarks are peppered with “Pope Francis has stated,” “Pope Francis has called on the world,” all leading into to quotations from the Pontiff’s writings and speeches.
Sanders hit on many of the topics where he and Francis are largely in agreement, saying, “The widening gaps between the rich and poor, the desperation of the marginalized, the power of corporations over politics, is not a phenomenon of the United States alone. The excesses of the unregulated global economy have caused even more damage in the developing countries. They suffer not only from the boom-bust cycles on Wall Street, but from a world economy that puts profits over pollution, oil companies over climate safety, and arms trade over peace.
He continued, “And as an increasing share of new wealth and income goes to a small fraction of those at the top, fixing this gross inequality has become a central challenge. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time. It is an issue that we must confront in my nation and across the world.”
He was unstinting in his praise for Francis, saying, “Some might feel that it is hopeless to fight the economic juggernaut ... Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism.”
There was a brief period earlier this week where there was talk of a possible meeting between Sanders and the Pope -- a prospect that raised a lot of eyebrows in the U.S. because of its political implications.
However, the Pontiff avoided the political minefield, sending a handwritten note to the attendees of the conference on social, economic and environmental issues apologizing for his absence and citing a scheduling conflict.
In the end, the absence of a papal audience probably doesn’t hurt Sanders much, and the chance to figuratively embrace his economic policies with the Vatican as his backdrop can only help him with voters who admire Francis and his efforts to promote equality.