NEW YORK — Democratic White House hopeful Bernie Sanders said Friday he hopes to meet Pope Francis while attending a conference on social and environmental issues at the Vatican next week. But a senior Vatican official quoted by Bloomberg accused the senator of “monumental discourtesy” in seeking an invitation to see the pope that puts a political cast on the gathering. And the Vatican said no meeting with Francis was planned.
Sanders said Friday he was “very excited” to have been invited to the conference. But the president of the pontifical academy hosting it said Sanders “didn’t follow proper protocol — he failed to contact her office — and that his presence threatens to make the event political,” Bloomberg reported.
“Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons,” Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, told Bloomberg. “He may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly — not that he will.”
However, the academy’s chancellor later said he had arranged the invitation. And Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs said Archer’s account was “categorically untrue. The invitation came to the senator from the Vatican.”
The Vermont senator said he was “very moved” by an invitation to join the April 15 Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences meeting, which will see him take a break from a bruising US presidential campaign.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi confirmed Sanders had been invited to the conference, but told AFP that it “has nothing to do with the pope” and that no meeting with Francis is planned.
In New York, Sanders told MSNBC that he was “a big, big fan of the pope.”
“Obviously there are areas where we disagree, on women’s rights or gay rights, but he has played an unbelievable role, an unbelievable role of injecting a moral consequence into the economy,” Sanders told the channel.
He later told reporters that it was “a possibility” that he would meet Francis, but acknowledged that nothing was currently scheduled.
“It’s something that I very much would like to do. The pope’s schedule is determined by the Vatican, but I would certainly be enthusiastic about that.”
Sanders, who is Jewish but whose wife is Catholic, has frequently expressed respect for Francis, who was treated to a rock-star reception on an inaugural tour of the United States last year.
The longest-serving independent member of Congress and self-declared democratic socialist is a champion of the struggling working class, and rails against the influence of big banks and billionaires.
“We can not, as the pope often tells us, simply be worshippers of greed and money,” he told reporters Friday.
“We’ve got to create an economy that works for all people and not just the few.”
The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was established by Pope John Paul II in 1994 to promote the study and progress of economics, sociology, law and political science.
Other conference invited attendees include Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales, the organizers said.
According to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Sanders trails Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton 42.5 to 53.5 percent in the April 19 New York primary, the next key battleground in the US presidential race.
Sanders, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, needs a win in Clinton’s adopted home state to help keep alive his dreams of the White House.
Catholics are the largest single religious group in New York state.