Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders interrupted his presidential campaign part-way through the primaries with a Roman holiday and answered an invite from Pope Francis.
The Vatican might seem an odd campaign stop for a nominally Jewish presidential candidate, but it has earned Vermont's Sen. Sanders the closest thing to a papal endorsement that a US politician can receive.
Although the Vatican has emphasized the pope's neutrality in the American election, the popular and media-savvy pope is at least expressing support for Sanders' signature positions.
"The optics are of a tacit papal endorsement of Sanders' views on social and economic justice," says R. Andrew Chesnut, the chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "This, combined with Francis's recent rebuke of Donald Trump, leaves no question about whom the Latin American pope prefers in the American presidential contest."
Sanders spoke Friday for 15 minutes at a Vatican conference on the dangers of an "unregulated globalization" that concentrates wealth among a few to the detriment of the middle class, CNN reported. Adding to the visit's significance, Pope Francis defied expectations by meeting privately with Sanders in what the senator called an "extraordinary moment."
"Participation at the Vatican conference provides a global platform for Sanders to both increase his appeal to American Catholics and position himself alongside the Argentine pontiff as a global spokesman on matters of social justice," Dr. Chesnut says. "It's been patently clear for some time now that Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis are fellow travelers."
What makes an Argentine pope and a Jewish senator effective "fellow travelers?"
Sanders' pro-abortion views and support for same-sex marriage hardly complement those of Pope Francis, who reasserted both the church's commitment to traditional families and opposition to abortion just last week. Given that Sanders interrupted his campaign to visit Rome, and the pontiff made time before an early trip to Greece to greet him, however, the two appear willing to overlook family matters.
"It goes without saying that I have my strong disagreements with certain aspects what the church stands for but [Pope Francis] has been out there talking about the need for a moral economy," Sanders said at a campaign rally in New York City, where supporters cheering his announcement of the Vatican visit apparently thought the jaunt to Rome was a good use of campaign time, CNN reported.
Pope Francis' clear focus since his papacy began has been for the poor, and many of his more overtly theological reforms aim to relieve struggling families. Sanders' speech on "the morality of our economic life" found "resonance" at the Vatican, Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs, who was present for Sanders' papal meeting, told CNN.
Climate policy is another area the two can agree upon, as Sanders is this US presidential race's most outspoken climate-change crusader. Pope Francis outlined his concerns about climate change in an encyclical and urged the United States to play a role in altering mankind's impact on the environment.
The pope has also taken a strong position against the death penalty and advocated mercy inside the prison system, Chesnut wrote for the Huffington Post. There, too, Sanders has historically promoted alternative rehabilitation measures and opposed capital punishment.
Apart from these specific views, the pope has not been averse to endorsing American socialists. When he visited the United States in September, Pope Francis structured his speech to Congress around the examples of four Americans who built "a better future" and "offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality," The Christian Science Monitor reported. One of these was Dorothy Day, a Catholic journalist and 20th-century socialist.
The pope has also been asked on numerous occasions whether he, like Sanders, is a socialist. He has directly rejected Marxism, however, and said his concern for the poor is a Christian tenet that communists have "stolen," Catholic News Agency wrote.
"I must say that communists have stolen our flag," he told the Roman daily Il Messagero in 2015. "The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is the center of the Gospel. The poor are at the center of the Gospel.”