Sen. Sanders Goes to the Vatican

by Michael Sean Winters

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Sen. Bernie Sanders will head from the debate stage Thursday night to the airport, whence he will fly to Rome to participate in a conference marking the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus at the Vatican. His appearance at a Vatican-sponsored event raises some interesting questions for both the senator and those Vatican officials who thought this was a good idea.

In announcing the trip, Sen. Sanders said: “I think the Vatican has been aware of the fact that, in many respects, the pope’s views and my views are very much related,” Sanders said. “He has talked in an almost unprecedented way about the need to address income and wealth inequality, poverty and to combat the greed that we’re seeing all over this world, which is doing so much harm to so many people. … For me, it is an extraordinary honor to receive this invitation.” In a subsequent interview on “Morning Joe,” the senator noted that “I am a big, big fan of the pope. Obviously, there are areas where we disagree, on like women’s rights or gay rights, but he has played an unbelievable role — an unbelievable role — of injecting the moral consequence into the economy.”

It is undoubtedly true that Pope Francis has lifted up the social doctrine of the Church as it relates to economic injustice in new and compelling ways, although the doctrine has been extant and developing for more than a century. But, when Sanders says “there are areas where we disagree” he shows how little he understands about the social doctrine Pope Francis highlights. The Church’s commitment to economic justice and, for example, its opposition to abortion are not discrete issues for Pope Francis. They are different aspects of the same core doctrine, the dignity of the human person, and the need for society to respect that dignity in its social, economic, and legal arrangements.

Sanders, who is not a Catholic, can be forgiven for failing to see the commonality. He has many Catholic colleagues in the Senate who are vocal in their defense of the unborn and utterly silent about the social mortgage that attaches to all private property. And he has many Catholic colleagues who care deeply about the unemployed and the undocumented but are indifferent to the cause of the unborn. These colleagues all take their cues from their partisan affiliation more than their religious affiliation. Pope Francis, obviously, does not.

Sanders’ comment about the need for a “moral economy” warrants exploration. I have criticized Sanders previously for his failure to make a moral argument for the proposals he sets forth. He calls for universal health care and notes that other countries have it. That is not a moral argument. He calls for increased taxes on the wealthy, which I support, but what are his reasons? He invokes the word “justice” but what does he mean by justice? Equality is an undeniable goal of a democracy, one Sanders cites frequently, and it is also a value that flows naturally from the religious belief that all men and women are created equal by God, but equality is not the only value in a democracy: What limits are rightly imposed on the reach of equality? Not all people who have invoked equality, for example, the Jacobins, were what we would consider morally astute persons. I would be delighted to hear Sen. Sanders explain what are the sources of his moral vision and, perhaps, his time in the Eternal City will produce such an explanation.

For Catholics, before we endorse any commitment to a given party or even a given policy, we should ask ourselves some key questions. Does a given policy proposal evidence solidarity, especially with the weakest, or not? Does a party serve the interests of human dignity, and if so how and in what ways does that party not value human dignity? The best exposition of such questions, and their relevance for public policy, in recent memory is found in a speech Archbishop Blase Cupich delivered last year, in which he said:

Friends can disagree and can see things in different ways. Admittedly, these differences can create tensions, but they should not break relationships. In times of tension, I ask you to keep in mind that the Church’s commitment to solidarity with workers is rooted in our commitment to solidarity with all.

The Church stands in solidarity with the undocumented. We stand in solidarity with the poor and homeless. We stand in solidarity with unborn children and their mothers. We stand in solidarity with the unemployed. We stand in solidarity with families and their children and their right to a good education. We stand in solidarity with the elderly and the sick.

Some of you will not share our commitments on one or more of these priorities. I ask that you respect that these commitments flow from the same, core belief in human life, human dignity and solidarity as our support for workers and their unions. My hope is that people will see that the Church is calling for a consistent ethic of solidarity that aims at making sure no one, from the first moment of life to natural death, from the wealthiest community to our poorest neighborhoods, is excluded from the table of life.

There is a clear moral vision that includes not just the economy, but a host of public issues. Could any candidate running today make such a statement?

It is not clear why, or how, the invitation to Sanders came about. Someone should have flagged it because the Church is well advised to stay clear of speakers who are in the middle of a political campaign. Pope Francis has stayed away from his native Argentina until that country completed its presidential campaign. And, surely there are people better able to address this issue than the senator. He has something to say, to be sure, but it is far from profound. Sanders’ campaign has more the feel of a pop craze than a serious intellectual or moral engagement with the problems that face the country.

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who heads the Pontifical Academy on Social Sciences, issued the invitation. Politico reports that Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs facilitated the invitation and its acceptance. Sachs has done splendid work with the Vatican on the issue of climate change, but here he should have raised a red flag. Whatever the bishop’s and the professor’s thoughts on the relative merits of Sanders’ candidacy versus that of his opponents, one of those opponents, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is still the odds on favorite to be the next president and both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops will have important work to undertake with her administration. Why give a platform to her opponent? I can forgive Vatican officialdom for not being able to read the delegate math of the nominating process, but it has been clear for some time that Sanders is unlikely to overtake her for the nomination, and Sachs or someone on this side of the pond should have warned against this invitation. The goal might have been to get the Vatican to “feel the Bern” but it is more likely they will end up with heartburn.

I also do not see how this speech will help Sanders very much. This weekend, the Vatican press office was at pains to note that the invitation did not come from Pope Francis and that the Pontifical Academy is not technically a part of the Holy See. There is, apparently, no guarantee that the pope will greet Senator Sanders. Will it not be taken as a snub if there is no photo op? Yes, there will be a great deal of media attention paid to Sanders’ speech, but he is not having trouble getting media attention right now no matter where he speaks. Better to speak to some Catholic in Syracuse than in Rome this week.

American Catholics, as a rule, do not look to religious leaders for guidance in choosing a candidate for whom to vote and American Catholic leaders have, rightly, been reluctant to endorse a particular candidate. True, on October 8, 1936, Msgr. John A. Ryan did make a radio broadcast, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, on behalf of the campaign of President Franklin Roosevelt, but I do not think he would have done so had not Fr. Charles Coughlin, a controversial radio priest in Michigan, been attacking Roosevelt so fiercely, calling the president a communist and a liar. Cardinal George Mundelein, that same year, more or less indicated he would be supporting the president’s election effort, but I suspect that also had to do with the perceived need to balance Coughlin and to make sure people knew that Coughlin did not speak for the Church. In recent years, some bishops have made clear their strong disapproval of President Obama, but he still won the Catholic vote both times he ran for the presidency.

This episode will go down as a footnote to story of the campaign. But, the questions it raises are perennial and are the questions with which this blog concerns itself most regularly: How should religion and religious values shape politics and policy? How to define common values in a pluralistic society? What are the sources of moral thinking in a culture that is historically and philosophically uninformed? When should the Church get embroiled in politics, and how? Those are the questions but I doubt Sen. Sanders’ visit to the Holy See will provide many answers.  


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