Sanders’ trip blurs message from the pope

Bernie Sanders, backdropped by St. Peter's Basilica, leaves the Vatican on Saturday after a chat with Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The Catholic Church, the Holy See and the modern popes have been the center of my research and study for over 30 years.

I have closely watched the recent events surrounding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ visit to Rome on Saturday.

Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo extended the invitation to Sanders to attend the symposium of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that was to observe the 25th anniversary of the release of Pope John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus.

As described on the Academy’s web page, the focus of the symposium entailed two questions. The first concerned changes in the world situation — economically, politically and culturally — over the past 25 years. The second investigated how Catholic social teaching has engaged the world in order to ask how best the church can do so in the coming years and decades.

This simple mission statement reveals two important elements. The concern of the symposium was global in its reach and the center of that concern was Catholic social teaching.

The dynamics involved in an American political primary season could not be further from this lens.

The backdrop for Mgr. Sanchez Sorondo’s invitation to Sanders is still vague. But Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist, professor at Columbia University and a speaker at the symposium has admitted that he “helped the Vatican reach out” to Sanders. It did not escape me that the first move in securing the invitation came from a fellow American and not “the Vatican.”

I think this is worth noting because much has been written in the American press about this visit with the focus understandably, on Sanders’ involvement.

There is a different point of view that needs to be considered — a point of view that has not received much play in the American press. It is important to mention how the events of last week unfolded in light of the Vatican and the pope.

Firstly, on April 8, Pope Francis released the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), a 260-page document on family life in contemporary society.

The work on this document was two years in the making and began with the opening of a synod of bishops on the family in October 2014. The significance of this exhortation to the pope cannot be underestimated.

On the very same day and within hours of the release of the exhortation, Sen. Sanders announced that “the Vatican” had invited him to Rome and that he would be meeting the pope.

Neither of these statements turned out to be accurate, but Sanders’ announcement stole the thunder of the release of Amoris Laetitia here in the states much to the chagrin, I am sure, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Secondly, Sen. Sanders’ “meeting with the pope” turned out to be a brief greeting in a hallway of the Domus Santa Marta where Sanders was waiting as the pope ate breakfast. Pope Francis was on his way to the Isle of Lesbos in Greece, a trip that was intended to call attention to the plight of Syrian refugees.

So important is this crisis to Pope Francis that on his return to Rome he brought with him 12 Syrian refugees in an effort to model to the world what needs to be done to alleviate their suffering. On the flight back to Rome and following a very emotional and moving experience, he fielded questions from reporters about Sanders.

In video of that interview the pope appears visibly irritated, saying:

“This morning when I was leaving, Senator Sanders was there, he had come to the convention. He knew I was leaving at that time and he had the courtesy to greet me. I greeted him, his wife and another couple who were there and were sleeping in Santa Martha. When I came down, I greeted him. I shook his hand and nothing more. This is called good manners and it is not getting involved in politics.”

Sanders has said many times that he aligns himself with the pope’s morality on economics and justice and yet here, in two instances in the same week, Sanders actually undermined Pope Francis’ moral focus.

In the interview on that flight back from Greece, Francis was extraordinarily generous and gracious.

Louise M. Doire, M.Div., teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.