When I saw the news story about the Vatican inviting Bernie Sanders for a visit, I first said: "Huh? Really? Now? In the middle of a hot primary election? Seriously?" I later found out that it was the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that had issued the invitation, not Pope Francis personally. But even that gives Bernie "bragging rights" in a contested primary election. And although nothing has been confirmed, it is difficult to see Bernie visiting the Vatican without a conversation with the popular Pope Francis himself. "Lights! Cameras! Action ... political ads!"
Granted, Pope Francis and Bernie have a lot in common in their economic outlook, and not only concern for the poor. Both advocate an economic re-structuring that shifts economic power away from the powerful toward those at the bottom of the economic ladder. At that level, I'm sure they could have a great conversation, comparing economic notes, and probably even recounting the many social justice teachings that Judaism and Christianity have in common. (Sanders is, of course, Jewish, although by his own admission, a secular Jew.)
But in spite of all this, I have to ask: Why now? I am sure that the Vatican is aware that we are in the midst of a highly contentious presidential primary campaign in the United States, and frankly, inviting Bernie suggests a political favoritism that is not wise.
Moveover, Hillary Clinton is no slouch on the economic disparities that Pope Francis often discusses. She is not as far to the left on these issues as is Bernie Sanders, but she calls herself a "social justice Methodist," and has long voiced concern for the economically downtrodden, especially the plight of women and children. And she clearly understands all that from a biblical perspective. In short, she shares much of Pope Francis' and Bernie's analysis of structural poverty generally, even if her solutions may be somewhat different from Bernie's.
We are currently in the primary season, and by most calculations, the Democratic contest is much closer than most analysts expected. However, the ultimate decision here is up to Democratic primary voters and caucus goers, not the Vatican. Whatever the intentions of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences -- and it could be simply a conversation about economic issues -- it will be seen as an invitation "from the "Vatican," maybe even Pope Francis, to candidate Bernie Sanders, and not as an invitation to candidate Hillary Clinton. In short, it raises questions of political favoritism.
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And this is where the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences should have consulted some American bishops, who know our political scene, before they issued the invitation. And the American bishops (if they were aware that this invitation might be coming) should have advised the Vatican not to do it.
But whatever the case, it is unwise for the Vatican to step into the middle of this contest -- even if all they want is an economic conversation with Bernie Sanders. That can wait. They should move to postpone the conversation with Sanders.