The senator and the pope met on Saturday, the next chapter in a long-standing, unlikely alliance.
A pope and and a secular Jew from Vermont walk into the lobby of a Vatican guesthouse. They shake hands. It was nothing, the pope maintains. “If someone thinks that greeting someone means getting involved in politics,” he said, “I recommend that he find a psychiatrist!”
There’s a punchline in there somewhere, but this is not a scene drawn from the rabbi-priest-joke canon. On Saturday, Bernie Sanders met Pope Francis in Rome, greeting the pontiff as he departed for Greece. The senator had been invited to speak on “the moral economy” at a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, and the speculation was fierce: Will he meet the pope, or won’t he? Although Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, suggested before the trip that a meeting wouldn’t happen, Sanders got his wish. According to The New York Times, a personal secretary to the pope found Sanders while he was at dinner and told him where and when to be if he wanted to catch Francis. It may be mostly one-sided, but the love affair of Bernie and Francis is not unrequited: Against all logic, the world’s foremost Catholic theologian and a socialist who’s running for United States president have found a jam.
On its face, the affinity between the two men might seem obvious. Both speak critically about capitalism, wealth, and greed; both seem to connect economic issues to the rest of the world’s ills. Sanders has pulled Francis close throughout his campaign, praising the pontiff ardently after he spoke to Congress last September, for example. Perhaps Sanders is hoping to soak up some of the pope’s massive popularity, or feels naturally drawn toward the other 70-something white man who has recently become an unlikely icon of progressive values. His affection seems heartfelt, though. As he told the press when news of his trip became public, “I was very moved by the invitation.”
Let these seeming similarities lead us not into temptation: The alliance between Sanders and Pope Francis is profoundly odd. For one thing, Catholic teachings don’t necessarily line up with Sanders’s stump speech as much as he might like to think. The conference he attended at the Vatican was gathered to commemorate Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical that focused on the evils of Marxism and communism. In that document, John Paul II argued that economies exist to serve human freedom, the core of which is “ethical and religious.” He criticized a kind of thinking that “totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” While Sanders has called for economic policies that focus more on poverty than profit-seeking and that incorporate goals like care for the environment, he is absolutely a material thinker. He apparently believes that every policy area, from foreign affairs to women’s rights, can be explained by economic factors; politics, in his view, is neither ethical nor religious, but rather a function of wealth and class. His campaign-trail preaching seems to be in conflict with the very document he flew to Rome to celebrate—not to mention central Church teachings on topics like contraception and abortion, which directly contradict Sanders’s platform.
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