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Sanders to attend Vatican conference

Bernie Sanders is on again as a speaker at a two-day conference to be held at the Vatican later this week.

Confusion, and some controversy, followed Sanders’ announcement last Friday that he had been invited to the conference organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, to be held April 15-16. Early reports said Sanders would be a speaker, but until late yesterday, he was merely supposed to be an attendee, not a featured speaker.

But when the official program came out late Monday afternoon, Sanders had been given a ten-minute spot after all. His topic: "the urgency of a moral economy."

“This is an invitation from the Vatican, from a pope that I have enormous respect for in term of the level of consciousness that he’s raising on the need to have morality in our economy,” Sanders told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" program.

This announcement provoked a near-immediate, and highly critical, response from Margaret Archer, the academy’s president, who claimed Sanders made the first move last week, essentially inviting himself.

And Archer linked his mentioning of the visit to the presidential primaries. “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,” Archer told Bloomberg.

But Archer was contradicted by Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Academy. He extended the invitation, officially sent March 30, on behalf of Archer.

“We are interested in having him because we have two presidents coming from Latin America," Bishop Sorondo said. "I thought it would be good to have an authoritative voice from North America.”

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor and the conference’s first speaker, told the Atlantic he helped the Vatican reach out to Bernie Sanders in March. “The academy sent the invitation, it’s pure and simple,” he said. 

Sachs is one of five original speakers at the event marking the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical criticizing the excesses of unfettered capitalism. Other speakers include the leftist presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

Eleven attendees will speak. Sanders;' very presence at the Vatican four days before the New York primary has provoked some discussion over whether this might have some effect on the election.

Michael Trice, assistant dean of Ecumenical & Interreligious Dialogue at Seattle University, said Sanders is framed as a socialist, but the academy, and the Vatican, is suggesting his ideas are “relevant, meaningful and substantial.”

“I think they are saying to the American Catholic conscience that these are not radical ideas, but worthy of being listened to,” said Trice. “That is, what Sanders is saying is relevant enough in a serious discussion, and in line with the current Catholic social teaching.”

Rick Henshaw, of the advocacy group, the Catholic League, said the conference is one on economic issues, and the church always welcomes a variety of viewpoints.

“Bernie Sanders indicated he was very enthused, that though he disagrees on a variety of issues, he shares the Pope’s economic concerns, said Henshaw.

“I am quite sure they were not looking at the time of the New York primary," Henshaw added. "The Vatican would not want to be seen to inject themselves in that.”

Sanders’ high profile in recent months likely brought attention to what he has to say, Henshaw said, but the invitation was not to “influence the political situation; more to enhance the conference.”