A source at the Vatican said Friday
that Sanders invited himself and risks making the event political. Even so, the undeniable, inescapable meeting of minds between Bernie and Francis could be the beginning of something beautiful.
The two men actually have a great deal in common. The Pope is more political than many would want him to be. He's not a socialist, as Bernie once described him
, because socialism is a materialist, man-made doctrine that puts human beings at the center of the universe rather than God. But Francis does want to put greater emphasis in his teachings
upon tackling poverty and environmental decline.
He hails from Argentina, a country that has seen a dirty war between fascism and communism and in which his parish teemed with those you might call capitalism's losers. His instinct is toward redistribution of the world's resources.
It's obvious what Bernie has in common with that agenda: His European-style socialism places him comfortably within a similar political tradition. But Sanders is also a little more religious than you might expect. I refer not only to his hilarious cameo
as a rabbi in the 1991 movie "My X-Girlfriend's Wedding Reception," but also to a few statements scattered along the campaign trail.
They are few because he regards himself as a secular rather than religious Jew and he prefers to separate politics and faith. But there is a discernible spiritual dimension to his sense of human solidarity, a concept that we Catholics would define as subsidiarity.
He said at a town hall:
"I believe that in my whole life, that we are in this together. The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt." At other times he has spoken about the inherited memory of Jewish identity, of what it means to be descended from persecuted people. Responsibility toward the memory of the past, responsibility for the health of future generations. These are very Catholic themes, too.
Moreover, Francis and Bernie occupy similar positions within their respective institutions: on the edge of the inside. Francis is trying to push his church toward being more pastoral, more understanding of the challenges faced by parishioners. His latest document, "Amoris Laetitia,"
spoke of accepting that there is a difference between Catholic ideals of family and the everyday reality. For this he has faced institutional resistance: Donald Trump is not the only man who regards the Pope as a social justice warrior.
Likewise, Sanders is trying to push the Democrats to the left. Conservatives would say this is where they have always been, but Sanders' ideas on breaking up banks and tackling inequality, not just inequity, are the stuff of the 1930s.
He represents a rejection of the Clintonite status quo. Part of that is a move away from the politics of identity that Hillary Clinton plays so well. While she tends to see voters in terms of sectional interest -- women, African-Americans, LGBTQ, etc. -- Bernie understands society in terms of competing classes. He is socially liberal but not to the degree that it would eclipse the shared economic interests of, say, the unemployed steelworker and a gay single father.
So when he was asked about his difference with Francis over abortion, he was happy to say
that the two men will "just have to disagree." More important to focus on filling people's bellies.
An America politician saying he's happy just to disagree with someone? Hail Mary! Alas, the relationship between politics and religion has become too theatrical and partisan in recent years. Since the 1970s the narrative has been that church-attending, socially conservative Christians vote Republican and Buddha-loving agnostics lean Democrat. Yes, that's supported by a lot of polling evidence -- but it's also the stuff of political shorthand, lazily forcing individuals and churches into political columns.
The reality is that religion does not fit the standard left-right divide very well. Catholic doctrine is inclined toward the social conservatism of Ted Cruz. But its concern for the poor surely makes it more favorable toward the economic policies of the left.
Culture, tragically, intrudes and tears up potentially fruitful alliances. The Obama administration enjoyed a lot of clerical sympathy for its determination to expand health care coverage. But it lost that sympathy when it insisted that some religious organizations cover contraception costs for employees -- leading to a sad, spiteful fight with a group of nuns.
If Bernie Sanders could find some way of decoupling his economic populism from this needlessly antagonistic cultural liberalism, he could find a whole new constituency waiting for him -- just as Francis has won plaudits from left-wing celebrities such as Susan Sarandon
and Mia Farrow
by accentuating the church's message on poverty. Identify commonalities, downplay differences.
The emergence of a left-wing politics infused with Christian spirituality would be a fine thing to happen. And the idea that a self-professed secular Jew could spearhead such a thing is rather wonderful. Only in America.