So Mr. Sanders goes to the Vatican. This is no parody of Frank Capra’s 1939 movie. It is happening for real, in the middle of a hard-fought campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and only a few days before the crucial New York primary.
This unexpected move is intriguing. What Sanders is looking for at the Vatican is rather obscure at first sight. First, he is very unlikely to meet with Pope Francis, who has no desire to infringe upon the US presidential elections further than his line about Donald Trump’s capabilities as construction builder and promoter (“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”; February 17).
Second, Sanders was not invited by Pope Francis or the Vatican government per se but by the equivalent of the Vatican’s think tank on economic and social matters, the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It’s as if Jefferson Smith wanted to address a joint session of Congress, but ended up talking to a mix of the Brookings Institution and the New America Foundation.
Third, as a speaker, Sanders will share the company of South American leaders who, among other things, are not role models in terms of democracy, respect for the environment, or for the United States of America: Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales have very mixed track records in these categories. Correa has authorized large-scale oil-drilling operations at Yasuni National Park, displacing thousands of Indian families and destroying biodiversity in the sanctuary of Amazonia. That’s not exactly paying respect or homage to Pope Francis’s Laudato si’ encyclical on the environment. Morales, for his part, another enthusiastic supporter of Hugo Chávez who, like Correa, has made repeated attempts to change the Constitution to prolong his tenure ad infinitum, can claim significant victories in his battle for growth and against poverty. But they have been won mainly through an intensive campaign to drill wherever possible. Mining exports almost quadrupled within eight years, while major lakes, like Lake Poopó, were depleted of their water, thereby impoverishing and displacing the poorer and more vulnerable parts of the Bolivian population. Drill, baby, drill.
So, why on earth—and in Heaven?—is Sanders going to the Vatican? Is he looking to kiss Pope Francis’s ring? Is he looking for a papal blessing for his campaign? Or will his presence in the Vatican’s many chapels and antechambers be as incongruous as Jefferson Smith’s bumbling and fidgeting his way through the corridors of DC?