No sooner had Bernie Sanders, the United States senator from Vermont, announced his invitation to address a Vatican conference just days ahead of the increasingly important New York primary, than a controversy broke out.
Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the entity hosting the conference, told Bloomberg Politics that Sanders had wrangled the invitation behind her back; Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the academy’s chancellor and a member of the Curia, said it wasn’t so—that Archer had signed off on the invitation. Essentially, he called her a liar. The Vatican, it seems, is a dangerous place to be a woman who would deign to wield the power implied by her title.
Just days before, Sanders, who is challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, had called Clinton “unqualified” for the presidency. To the ears of many women of a certain age, accustomed to being deemed unqualified for roles long reserved to men, the charge had a gendered tinge. To some of us, it may even seem fitting, in light of Sanders’s remarks (which he has since walked back), that he should be so warmly received by an institution that bars women from the upper reaches of leadership. But I digress.
The real question here is: Just what is the Vatican up to? Whether or not Sanders asked for the invitation, the Pontifical Academy did not have to grant it. The two other politicians addressing the conference—which will mark the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, the encyclical by Pope John Paul II written to commemorate Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which addressed the rights of labor and capital—are both heads of state. And if there’s any institution steeped in the particulars of symbolism and protocol, it’s the Vatican.
“It does not signify any support of the [Sanders] campaign,” Sánchez Sorondo, an Argentine identified in news reports as one of Pope Francis’s close advisers, told CNN. Never mind that the five Democratic nominating contests this month are in states with substantial Catholic populations, or that so many liberals and progressives of all religious (and non-religious) stripes can’t get enough of Pope Francis’s declamations of income inequality—echoed in the Sanders platform—despite the fact that the church’s retrogressive positions on women would keep them in states of dependency, and hinder any true progress in reducing poverty for all. (The senator was quick to note his disagreement with the pope on the subjects of women’s rights and gay rights.)
Although Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told The Daily Beast that the invitation to Sanders was not made by the pope, it is unlikely that it would have been made without the pope’s assent. And the invitation from Sánchez Sorondo to the Democratic candidate from Vermont doesn’t mark the first time a papal favorite has exerted influence on American presidential race involving a milestone for a woman candidate.
In 1984, John O’Connor was appointed to preside over the Archdiocese of New York by Pope John Paul II, who described O’Connor’s new post as “archbishop of the capital of the world.” O’Connor was seen as one of the pope’s stars, not least of all for his staunch opposition to women’s rights.
For the first time in U.S. history, a woman had been named to the presidential ticket of a major political party, when former Vice President Walter Mondale tapped Geraldine Ferraro, the congresswoman from Queens, to be his running-mate. Although O’Connor had previously remarked that he couldn’t see how any Catholic could, “in good conscience,” vote for a pro-choice candidate, the archbishop singled out Ferraro for special opprobrium less than two months before the election. After implying that she may have been “exploiting the issue of abortion” with her pro-choice stance, he accused her of misrepresenting Catholic teaching on the issue.
When O’Connor was elevated to cardinal some eight months later, a longtime member of the Catholic dissent movement and agitator for women’s ordination ruefully told me, “He got his red [cardinal’s] hat for what he did to Gerry Ferraro.”
In the current contest between Clinton and Sanders, abortion is not a point of contention—both are pro-choice (though there was that time that the senator dismissed his rival’s endorsement by Planned Parenthood as coming from an “establishment” organization). What stands out most in this latest intervention by a papal confidante in an American presidential contest is that, once again, the church’s magisterial muscle is being flexed against the woman candidate.
“Perhaps the others [candidates] would have been interested but they did not request to come" to the Vatican conference, Sánchez Sorondo coyly told CNN.
Thanks, in part, to its candidate’s tin ear on matters of gender equality, the Sanders campaign has been marred by the phenomenon of the “Bernie bro,” a term assigned to certain male Sanders fans who have taken to trolling Clinton supporters on the Internet. With the Pontifical Academy’s exquisitely timed invitation to the senator, it seems as if the biggest Bernie bro of all could just be the one they call the Holy Father.