- Presidential candidate says he has `enormous respect' for pope
- Visit to Rome may inject the pontiff into Democratic contest
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ plan to attend a Vatican-sponsored conference put him in the middle of a diplomatic row as a senior Vatican official accused the senator of showing “monumental discourtesy” in angling for an invitation that puts a political cast on the gathering.
Sanders, whose foreign policy experience is under attack by competitor Hillary Clinton, said Friday he was “very excited” to have been invited to the conference on economic and social issues hosted by a pontifical academy in Rome on April 15. It will put him at the seat of the Roman Catholic Church four days before the New York primary.
It has also inserted Sanders into a dispute among Vatican officials. The president of the academy said Friday that Sanders didn’t follow proper protocol -- he failed to contact her office -- and that his presence threatens to make the event political. The academy’s chancellor said he arranged the invitation and defended the Vermont senator.
“Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons,” Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which is hosting the conference, said in a telephone interview. “He may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly -- not that he will.”
Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, disputed Archer’s comments and said the characterization of the invitation is “categorically untrue. The invitation came to the senator from the Vatican.” His campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said the trip wasn’t calculated to help the candidate’s appeal to Catholic voters in the New York primary.
Sanders’ travel to the Vatican, a day after a debate with Clinton and just before the primary, injects into the Democratic nominating contest the agenda of Pope Francis, one of the most popular world leaders whose papacy is especially admired by the political progressives who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries.
The public complaint by Archer feeds into criticism by Clinton of Sanders’ inexperience in diplomacy and dealing with foreign institutions, a central role of the U.S. president.
Archer, an English social scientist appointed the head the pontifical academy in 2014, said that while she “quite liked” Sanders’ program on paper, his failure to contact her first is a breach of protocol. “The president of the academy organizing this event has not been contacted with monumental discourtesy,” she said, referring to herself.
Sanders “made the first move two or three days ago,” Archer said. She did not know whom he or his representatives contacted. “His use of it is clearly a pretext,” she said. “There are just 20 academics and there will be nothing of policy relevance.”
However Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Academy, speaking on the phone from New York, said he extended the invitation to Sanders, though he repeatedly declined to say who initiated the contact.
“We are interested in having him because we have two presidents coming from Latin America. I thought it would be good to have an authoritative voice from North America,” Sanchez Sorondo said. Asked when the invitation was extended, he said, “Quite some time ago.”
Archer didn’t respond to subsequent phone and e-mail requests from Bloomberg News for a response to Sanchez Sorondo’s remarks.
A copy of the invitation to Sanders provided by the chancellor’s office is dated March 30 and signed by Sanchez Sorondo. The letter says he’s inviting the senator “on behalf of” Archer and the conference organizers. An announcement about Sanders’ participation, also under Sanchez Sorondo’s name, was released early Friday.
Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa are listed as speakers at the event on the academy’s website. Sanders isn’t listed as a speaker.
Sanders, who has made economic disparities the centerpiece of his campaign, earlier on Friday said, “This is an invitation from the Vatican, from a pope that I have enormous respect for in term of the level of consciousness that he’s raising on the need to have morality in our economy.”
Weaver said on Bloomberg Television’s “With All Due Respect” Friday that Sanders has “great affinity” for the pope and his message on the moral economy, adding that he has no intention of canceling the trip to continue campaigning in New York, which will be a pivotal contest in the Democratic race.
“Some things are more important than politics,” Weaver said. “When you get invited by the Vatican, I think you go.”
The office of the pope moved to distance the pontiff from the visit. Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said Sanders had been invited “not by the pope but by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.” Lombardi told the Italian news agency Ansa: “For the moment there is no expectation that there will also be a meeting with the pope.”
Francis has raised the Catholic church’s emphasis on issues of poverty, environmental stewardship, and aid to refugees. The pope already has played a role in this year’s election through criticism of anti-immigrant policies embraced by Republican candidates. He caused a stir in February with his response to a journalist’s question about Republican Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico to prevent immigrants from crossing illegally.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the Pope said. He demurred when asked if Catholics should vote for Trump.
Presidential candidates, including Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, made tours of foreign capitals to respond to criticism of inexperience on the world stage. In both cases, they traveled to multiple countries and waited until after they had clinched their party’s nominations.
The conference Sanders will attend marks the 25th anniversary of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II that criticized excesses of unfettered capitalism.