Democratic hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders met Pope Francis during a whirlwind trip to the Vatican — an encounter which is being touted by both parties as "above politics."
Sanders spoke at an academic conference on Friday at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. A spokesperson from the Vatican told press ahead of the senator's visit to the Holy See that there would be no meeting between the Pope and Sanders.
However, Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders did meet the Pope briefly, in a hallway. After the brief interaction, Francis told reporters that he "greeted them, shook their hands and nothing more." "It's good manners," he added.
The Pope brushed off questions about whether the meeting had political overtones or indicated that he was getting involved in US politics. Laughing, he said, "If someone thinks that greeting someone means getting mixed up in politics, they should see a psychiatrist."
After the meeting, Sanders told CBS that "beauty" resonated from the Pope. He added that they chose not to have a picture taken together because of the politically charged message it might send. "If I was really being political, I'd be in New York City right now and not in Rome," the senator said.
New York's crucial primary is just three days away. And in spite of Sanders' insistence that the visit to the Vatican was a departure from the campaign trail, his warm welcome at the Holy See might curry favor with New York voters — about a third of whom are Catholic.
Sanders instead said that the invitation was an opportunity he couldn't resist. "It would have been something that I would've kicked myself for years to come if I did not accept this invitation, so I'm happy to be here," Sanders said, adding that he and the Argentinian pontiff share many of the same principles.
"I conveyed to him my great admiration for the extraordinary work that he is doing all over the world in demanding that morality be part of our economy," Sanders told the New York Times. "We have got to move toward a moral economy, not simply an economy based on greed."
Sanders gave his speech on Friday about income inequality, which he generously layered with several of the Pope's edicts, particularly on the worship of money over morals, while also addressing his own remonstrations in the US of Wall Street greed.
Sanders praised the Catholic Church's "depth and insight" on the need for a "moral economy," and paid several homages to Pope Francis's teachings.
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," Sanders said in prepared remarks. "It is an issue that we must confront in my nation and across the world."
Sanders lamented the depth of corporate greed underpinning the current American financial system, which he said, coupled with a lack of oversight or willful ignorance from politicians, led to the 2008 financial crisis, "the worst economic decline since the 1930s" in the US.
In a familiar return to his regular stump speech, the senator also criticized the US Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns through super PACSs, saying the decision established a "system in which billionaires can buy elections."
"Rather than an economy aimed at the common good, we have been left with an economy operated for the top one percent, who get richer and richer as the working class, the young and the poor fall further and further behind," Sanders said.
Sanders quoted the pope several times during his speech, including using the pontiff's term, "the Globalization of Indifference," or a general and pervasive lack of compassion for others.
"Pope Francis has called on the world to say: 'No to a financial system that rules rather than serves'," Sanders said, quoting the pontiff. "And he called upon financial executives and political leaders to pursue financial reform that is informed by ethical considerations. He stated plainly and powerfully that the role of wealth and resources in a moral economy must be that of servant, not master."
Sanders ended his speech on a quixotic note, saying he firmly believed it was within the realm of possibility to turn around the "challenges facing our planet" and "bring the economy back under the dictates of morality and the common good."
The senator pushed back on repeated criticisms that policies are unachievable and simultaneously praised Francis.
"I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be 'practical,' that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach," he said. "Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world's greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism."
Sanders landed in Rome shortly after lunchtime on Friday after taking a red-eye from New York straight after a highly combative debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. The senator, who was accompanied by his wife Jane and 10 other family members, including four of his grandchildren, said he worked on his speech on the charter flight. He was greeted by a small group of supporters at the Vatican, some who held signs that read: "Rome is Berning."
The decision to take a brief hiatus from the campaign trail comes just days before a critical New York primary on April 19. The trip caused some controversy this week, including between members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which is hosting the conference, some of whom had concerns that Sanders' presence there would politicize the event.
The Vatican and the pope have purposefully removed themselves from the US presidential election since Francis made a comment about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump in February. At the time, the pope suggested that Trump was "not Christian" for seeking to build a wall between the US and Mexico that would keep undocumented immigrants out of America.
Sanders, who would be the first Jewish US president if elected, was the only 2016 political candidate invited to attend the Vatican conference. He will return to New York to resume campaigning on Saturday.