ROME—Not since Pope Francis’s ill-advised meeting with gay marriage opponent Kim Davis has there been so much “he said, she said” controversy about the pope meddling in American politics.
On Friday, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders announced that he was “very excited” about having just received an invitation to speak at a small, invitation-only scholarly conference at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences celebrating the 25th year anniversary of an encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” written by Pope John Paul II on the evils of capitalism.
Francis is not expected to attend the conference, which will take place April 15 and 16 with around 30 participants, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Francis will be traveling to Lesbos, Greece, on the 16th to shed light on the Syrian refugee crisis there.
The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, told The Daily Beast that it wasn’t the pope who personally invited the politician. “The invitation was made on behalf of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, not by Pope Francis,” he said. “There is no expectation that the pope will meet Mr. Sanders.” He then added that he could not completely exclude the possibility, but that nothing was on the agenda at the moment.
Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said that Sanders invited himself. “Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons,” Archer 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.”
Not long after, Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences stepped in to dispute Archer’s statements. “I deny that. It was not that way," Sánchez Sorondo told Reuters. “This is not true and she knows it. I invited him with her consensus.”
Sánchez Sorondo later toned down his initial comments telling CNN the invitation should not be seen as an endorsement of the senator’s nomination. “It does not signify any support of the campaign," Sánchez Sorondo said. "We want to establish a dialogue between North America and South America so we thought to invite a [U.S.] politician. The president of Bolivia will also be there. Perhaps the others [candidates] would have been interested but they did not request to come."
He also confirmed to CNN that Sanders had reached out to the Vatican first. “He has expressed an interest many times in the Pope's encyclical and it's clear that he has an interest in studying it,” Sánchez Sorondo said. “It might have that effect, but we are not looking to support the campaign."
The monsignor expressed dismay that there was such a fuss about an invitation to a conference few people would have even heard about. “I don't know what is the problem," Sánchez Sorondo told the National Catholic Reporter. "We have two presidents from Latin America, and we don't have a problem. And we have a problem because we invited one candidate to the White House of your country? It's a little impossible to understand."
No matter who instigated the invitation, it is inarguable that Sanders and the pope see eye to eye on issues of social justice and economic disparity. Last September, Vatican press attaché Father Thomas Rosica interviewed Sanders for the Canadian Salt and Light Catholic television series Witness. “He has come along in history at exactly the right moment,” Sanders said of Pope Francis in the lengthy interview. “We are living in a world where greed has become, for the wealthiest people, their own religion.”