ROME, Vatican City, April 15 (UPI) — Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders arrived at the Vatican on Friday to deliver a speech underscoring his core economic message that America needs to build a “moral economy.”
The overnight trip comes hours after he and his rival Hillary Clinton engaged in an often-hostile debate Thursday night, and just days ahead of the crucial New York primary.
The origins of the Vatican trip were questioned, with one official there saying Sanders himself fished for the invitation to address what is essentially an in-house think tank advising Pope Francis on issues of social justice. Other Vatican officials, including Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy on Social Sciences before which Sanders will speak, denied Sanders sought the Vatican audience.
Instead, Sorondo said he reached out to the Vermont senator because Sanders has mentioned so many of Francis’ teachings on the campaign trail.
“We invited the candidate who cites the pope the most in his campaign, and that is Senator Bernie Sanders,” Sorondo, who is close with Pope Francis, said.
A papal spokesman said Sanders would not be granted a private audience with the pope and Francis would not be in attendance at the conference. Instead, the pope was scheduled to leave for a visit to Greece on Friday.
Sorondo demurred, saying it was impossible to rule out Sanders and the pope running into one another during Sanders’ trip to the Vatican.
The decision to travel to Europe in the midst of a crucial primary campaign was not without controversy. Sanders trails Clinton in the delegate count and in polls in New York. The trip to the Vatican will cost Sanders about one full day of campaigning in New York — and including Friday, there are only four days left before New Yorkers vote on Tuesday.
A big loss there could all but doom his hopes of catching up to Clinton in the pledged delegate count.
The trip has its political upside, as well. While advisers promised no politicking in Rome in Sanders’ speech, Catholics make up a significant percentage of the Democratic vote in New York and Pennsylvania, which votes next week.