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Bernie Sanders And The Invitation Pope Francis Never Sent

ICE Graveyard 18/04/2016 Massimo Faggioli

The invitation (so to speak) the Vatican sent or had someone send to Bernie Sanders for a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held April 15-16 in honor of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus Annus, prompted a series of different reactions. There are those who consider Sanders's decision to take a trip to give a speech that wouldn't last more than 10 minutes, just two days after the New York primaries, an irresponsible choice. (Ironically, the program had Sanders speaking right after Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, who is -- politically speaking -- the complete opposite of the U.S. senator.) According to other commentators, inviting Sanders to the global headquarters of Catholicism merely makes the election of a woman to the White House that much more unlikely.
Others have interpreted the invitation as the Pope's blessing for a political agenda marked by progressive Judaism. Last but not least, there are those who believe that Pope Francis intends to get involved in American politics with the goal of imposing his own left-leaning political agenda (as noted by Sandro Magister, a Vatican specialist known for his disapproval of Pope Francis.)
Nevertheless, none of these hypotheses are true. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the Vatican and the Catholic Church knows that arguing over these accusations is a worthless pastime (with the exception of the hypothesis that the Pope is interested in getting involved in American politics, but we'll talk about that later). Nevertheless, this debate can shed some light on the relationship between the Vatican and the politics of Pope Francis.
By now, it's clear that Sanders was not invited by Pope Francis directly, and not even by some political representative of the Holy See. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we know that the invitation was sent by the bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (an expert on Thomas Aquinas, born in Argentina), chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences, who in extending this invitation bypassed Margaret Archer, the president of the Pontifical Academy. Archer was quick to announce how surprised she was to see an invitation sent to Sanders, adding that the American politician had committed a "monumental discourtesy," by asking for an invitation without going through her office first.
After this statement, Sorondo stated that Archer was entirely aware of the invitation, effectively calling her a liar. Last weekend, someone in the Vatican with close ties to Pope Francis found out that American politician who is currently running for the White House might attend the conference -- a candidate who has declared to TV station MSNBC that the invitation came "from the Vatican," and who on April 8 stated on The View, broadcast on ABC, that the invitation came directly from the Pope, and that the Pope had already organized a meeting between them.
At this point, it was too late for the Vatican to revoke the invitation: Sanders had already announced it publicly. The announcement wasn't made by the secretary of state or by his press office, but directly by the candidate. It's unlikely that the Vatican wants to overshadow the coverage of Amoris Laetitia by creating a distraction and announcing Bernie Sanders's visit on the same day it was made public. In addition, the Vatican would not want this affair to interfere with the meeting between the refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople on April 16 in Lesbos, Greece.
Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the strange program sent to Sanders was intended to discourage him from attending. (Remember that the meeting would take place just a few hours after his debate with Hillary Clinton on Friday, April 15 at 4pm in Italy, in other words at 10am Eastern Time in the U.S., and that Sanders would finish the debate at 11pm Eastern Time on Thursday, April 14).
If this was a hidden message, then the message wasn't received, nor was it understood nor accepted by Sanders and his staff. In the wake of this affair, the Vatican completely ignored Sanders and tried to give his "visit" as little room in the media as possible. Father Lombardi has held a number of different press conferences in the Vatican during the week of April 11, but Sanders's name never came up.
No matter what happens next, things will be interesting for a number of different reasons:
1. Pope Francis and politics
While it's true that Joe Biden will visit the Vatican on April 29 to take part in a conference on cancer, it's also true that he will be visiting as the U.S. Vice President, and not as a candidate in the middle of the primaries. It's clear that the "invitation" sent to Sanders not only broke with an established, unwritten rule on intelligent diplomatic relations (according to which it is considered good practice to avoid getting mixed up in an election campaign and create ill will or disappointment with anyone who might win the official elections), it also broke with the model for maintaining political relationships that Pope Francis has adopted. Pope Francis is deeply committed from a political and social point of view, but has nevertheless maintained an appropriate and legitimate distance from politics. He interacts in the political sphere when he knows he's facing presidents, chancellors, ministers and so forth.

2. Pope Francis's program for social justice and conflict of interest

One of the elements that has been most overlooked in this whole affair is the role of those who probably insisted, along with bishop Sorondo, that the invitation be sent. Rumors in the hallways suggest Jeffrey Sachs is behind this affair. The connection between Sachs and Sanders's campaign can apparently be found in the communications expert Michael Shank, at least according to a piece published by Dana Houle. Jeffrey Sachs is, among many other things, a consultant to Sanders who has in the past worked as a supervisor in the Vatican. Michael Shank worked for Sachs, and has also worked for the Vatican.
One thing worth noting is that Politico referred to Shank as "a media consultant who works with Sachs and said he 'occasionally' handles press relations for Vatican conferences."
Shank tried to pass Sanders's invite off as an official invitation from the Vatican. "The PASS is part of the Vatican. So the senator is right when he says the Vatican invited him," he told Politico.
These elements help shed more light on the conflict of interest that exists between their role within the Pontifical Academy and the political activities in favor of Bernie Sanders at a moment considered particularly crucial for the outcome of the primaries.
3. Sanders and world politics
The way Sanders has reacted throughout this affair shows that there was a lapse of judgment on everyone's part. That's why Sanders is not entirely blameless here.
A presidential candidate should know what the Vatican is, what role it plays, not only as the fulcrum of the Catholic Church, but also as a state that maintains diplomatic relations on a global scale -- it is relied on by many nations, including the United States, to resolve delicate situations in dangerous zones around the planet. Paradoxically, Sanders, who shares many of Pope Francis's views according to many experts, has been dragged into this affair. It's not hard to see why an expression like "I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I missed this opportunity," is okay when it's said by a scientist, a tourist, a famous person or anybody else...except by a candidate running for president in the United States of America.
4. The Vatican and the line of communication with the American Catholic Church
This affair shows just how complicated it is to maintain clear lines of communication between Pope Francis's Vatican and the Catholic Church in America. All this took place during the same days in which a new apostolic nuncio for the United States, Christophe Pierre was appointed. (Pierre took over for Carlo Maria ViganĂ², who retired last January at 75.)
On April 7, the day before the news of Sanders's visit to the Vatican hit, ViganĂ² was in Rome attending a fundraising gala organized by the North America College, during which he received the Rector's 2016 award. It's difficult to believe that anyone, whether the United States bishops or the secretary of state or even the apostolic nunciature, was able to shed light on the protagonists of this affair. From this point of view, the "invitation" of Sanders to the Vatican was a left-wing version of the episode involving Kim Davis during Pope Francis's visit to the United States last September.
5. The Vatican, American politics and the American Catholic Church
This unfortunate event can be traced back to the failure to interpret Pope Francis's intentions concerning U.S. politics following the interview he gave during his trip back from Mexico, when he was asked about Trump.
Nevertheless, it also represents a sign of the concerns shared by several members of the Vatican when it comes to the outcome of the U.S. elections. The changes introduced by Pope Francis, both in terms of papal style and in the areas of social and economic justice, have given many (including Sanders) the impression that the Vatican is now a terrain in which people can move freely.
This erroneous interpretation of Pope Francis and his role has given others (in the Vatican) the idea that they can impose a program on behalf of the Pope, not only ignoring protocol, but breaking the basic rules of intelligent diplomacy. (Ironically, the Vatican can vaunt the oldest diplomatic system in the Western world.)
Both sides have not only underestimated the vulnerability of relations between the Holy See and the United States, but have even overlooked the particularly delicate moments these relations are experiencing under Pope Francis's papacy.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

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