On Vatican trip, Sanders takes economic message global

In address to Catholic academy, Democratic presidential candidate denounces financial corruption, environmental destruction

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders meets supporters outside the Perugino gate of the Vatican in Rome, Italy, on April 15, 2016. (Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP)
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders meets supporters outside the Perugino gate of the Vatican in Rome, Italy, on April 15, 2016. (Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP)

Bernie Sanders issued a global call to action at the Vatican on Friday to address “immoral and unsustainable” wealth inequality and poverty, using the high-profile gathering to echo one of the central platforms of his presidential campaign.

The Jewish senator spoke for 10 minutes Friday at the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences just hours after making some similar points in a testy Democratic presidential debate in New York ahead of the state’s Tuesday primary.

Sanders arrived in Rome hours after wrapping up a debate in New York Thursday night, saying the opportunity to address the Vatican conference was too meaningful to pass up. The roughly 24-hour visit precedes Tuesday’s crucial New York primary, which Sanders must do well in to maintain a viable challenge to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The Vatican conference marked the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, an encyclical on the economy and social justice after the fall of communism promulgated by the late Pope John Paul II.

“Twenty-five years after Centesimus Annus, speculation, illicit financial flows, environmental destruction and the weakening of the rights of workers is far more severe than it was a quarter century ago,” said Sanders, an Independent from Vermont. “Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The issue of wealth and income inequality “is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time and the great moral issue of our time,” he said.

“In the year 2016, the top 1 percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people — 60 people — own more than the bottom half — 3½ billion people. At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable.”

The trip gave Sanders a moment on the world stage, placing him alongside priests, bishops, academics and two South American presidents. Sanders has been at a disadvantage during his campaign against Clinton, President Barack Obama’s former secretary of state, on issues of foreign policy but he was peppered with questions from academics and ecclesiastics in a manner that might have been afforded a head of state.

Sanders seemed full of energy despite flying overnight from New York after debating his rival for the Democratic nomination, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Some political commentators criticized him for leaving the state while trailing Clinton, the front-runner in the contest, in polls ahead of voting there.

“We don’t choose to politicize the pope,” Sanders told attendees, “but his spirit and courage and the fact, if I may say so here, that his words have gone way, way, way beyond the Catholic Church.”

Sanders also warned that youth around the world are no longer satisfied with the status quo, which includes “corrupt and broken politics and an economy of stark inequality and injustice.”

He defended the trip to reporters and a small group of supporters, who mobbed him outside the Vatican after his speech. The supporters chanted “Bernie, Bernie” and held “Feel the Bern” signs.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane leave after a conference of Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on April 15, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane leave after a conference of Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on April 15, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

“I know that it’s taking me away from the campaign trail for a day, but when I received this information it was so moving to me that it was something that I could just simply not refuse to attend,” Sanders said, smiling in the afternoon sunlight.

He said he was “so excited, so proud to be here with like-minded people trying to create a just economy.”

Sanders lauded Pope Francis for his advocacy of economic justice and his “enormously important” role in speaking out against climate change. He underscored that the phenomenon “is real and caused by human activity” and slammed “the greed of the fossil fuel industry,” which he said was “destroying our planet.”

Sanders was not scheduled to meet with the pontiff during his brief visit to Rome.

Back home, Clinton holds a significant delegate lead against Sanders, but the senator has vowed to stay in the campaign until the party’s July convention. His message calling for a political revolution to address wealth inequality and the influence of Wall Street on US politics has galvanized many Democrats and independents.

Despite being enmeshed in an increasingly bitter campaign against Clinton, Sanders aides said the trip was not aimed at appealing to Catholic voters who comprise a large share of the Democratic electorate in New York and an upcoming contest in Pennsylvania.

The Vatican has been loath to get involved in electoral campaigns and usually tries to avoid any perception of partisanship involving the pope. Popes rarely travel to countries during the thick of political campaigns, knowing a papal photo opportunity with a sitting head of state could be exploited for political ends.

As a result, the invitation to Sanders to address the Vatican conference raised eyebrows and allegations that the senator lobbied for the invitation.

The chancellor for the pontifical academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, has said he invited Sanders because he was the only US presidential candidate who showed deep interest in the teachings of Francis.

The Rev. Matt Malone, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said Sanders’ trip was unlikely to have much of an impact on Catholic voters, noting that conferences like the one Sanders is attending “happen all the time.”

“I don’t think that Bernie Sanders going to the Vatican is going to help Bernie with Catholics any more than Ted Cruz going to a matzo factory is going to help him with the Jewish vote,” said Malone, who served as a speechwriter to former Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat.

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