The Vatican may have made a big boo-boo when it invited Bernie Sanders to come to Rome and give a speech on April 15. But, as we’ll see, it may offer some unexpected insight into the current place Jews hold in the world’s imagination.
You can understand why they invited him. The event is an international conference on economic justice. Sanders is the guy who put the issue atop the agenda of the world’s most powerful nation. It makes sense.
On the other hand, it crossed so many lines of normal political etiquette that it left observers gaping, the conference’s own organizers openly feuding, the Hillary Clinton campaign quietly fuming, top Sanders aides squirming and the press corps giggling up their sleeves.
For one thing, it comes in the middle of an American presidential race, thus unavoidably creating the impression that the Vatican has improperly endorsed one of the candidates. That’s probably the biggest mistake. For another thing, it takes Sanders overseas with the critical New York primary just four days away. That’s Sanders’s problem, but it’s not a small one. It greatly amplifies the chatter surrounding the trip.
Then there’s this: Given the nature of the Vatican as the world’s most visible and influential religious institution, the invitation has created an impression that Sanders is on the program to present the Jewish viewpoint. Nobody’s come out and said it, but you can read it between the lines every time another commentator notes that he’s the Jewish guy at a Catholic conference.
It’s not a role he’s ever claimed for himself. Moreover, a quick look at the conference’s program and attendees indicates that it’s not what the invitation was about.
At the same time, it’s true that he’s emerged over the past year as the leading spokesman for a certain stream of Jewish thought that’s a lot more widespread than you might think — and painfully absent from the Jewish communal discourse that we usually hear.
Consider: A pair of surveys back in 2012 — one by the Public Religion Research Institute for the Cummings Foundation, the other by Steven M. Cohen for the Workmen’s Circle — probed American Jews’ opinions on social and political issues. Broadly speaking, support for liberal positions on social questions like abortion, gay rights and immigration ran between 80% and 90%. Support for progressive views on economic questions — backing unions, reining in corporations, raising taxes on the rich — ran between 55% and 70%.
That is, there’s overwhelming Jewish support for social liberalism. There’s also a strong majority for progressive economic policies. This difference lies in the 20% or so of Jews who lean left on social issues but not economics. And that 20%, concentrated in the major donor class, sets the agenda for major domestic Jewish advocacy work.
The Vatican conference is sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a nominally independent think tank set up in 1994 by Pope John Paul II. The conclave’s title is “Centesimus Annus 25 Years Later.” It’s meant to look back at the influence and relevance of John Paul’s 1991 papal encyclical letter on the economy and workers’ rights.
The encyclical’s title, Centesimus Annus, is Latin for “100th anniversary.” It was issued to mark the centennial of the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (“New Things”), a groundbreaking declaration supporting workers’ rights, fair pay and labor unions. In effect, therefore, the Centesimus Annus conference is a celebration of the 25th anniversary of a 100th-anniversary celebration.
Rerum Novarum attempted in 1891 to chart a new Catholic social doctrine in response to the industrial revolution. It addressed the twin threats, as Leo saw them, of rapacious buccaneer capitalism and violent revolutionary socialism. It defended private property — including land and factories — but called for government regulation, living wages, humane working conditions and strong unions.
Leo’s document posed a defiant challenge to local church hierarchies allied for centuries to nobility and the wealthy. It divided the church into opposing camps of liberals and conservatives. The two sides have been fighting it out ever since.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the liberal popes John XXIII and Paul VI elevated a generation of church leaders who took a lead fighting poverty, especially in the developing world. John Paul II, coming of age in communist Poland, managed during his long papacy to reverse the trend and appoint a generation of deeply conservative bishops.
In America, the church debate has played out in a decades-long tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives. Catholic liberals have played a historic role in the labor movement, immigrant rights and Democratic politics. Conservatives — including much of the church hierarchy — put top priority on abortion and gender issues and are a key force in the Republican coalition.
The Argentine-born Pope Francis aims to reverse course once again. But he won’t have much time. John Paul II became pope at 58 and served 27 years. Francis took office at 76. In three years he’s issued some daring declarations and made a few key appointments, but his long-term impact remains to be seen.
The two-day Centesimus Annus conference is one reflection of the Francis era. It was organized by an Argentine ally, Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the social-science academy. Inviting Sanders was his idea. The invitation sparked an embarrassing spat with the academy’s president, British sociologist Margaret Archer, another Francis ally. She claimed Sanders had invited himself. Sanchez then produced the letter inviting Sanders in his and Archer’s name. That tiff has done a lot to sour the affair.
Sanders is one of four politicians among the 24 speakers scheduled to address the conference. Two are controversial South American socialists, presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. The other two are Sanders and a leader of Italy’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, Rocco Buttiglione. Nearly all the rest are academics, about half of them affiliated with Catholic institutions.
Sanders is one of two American Jews on the program. The other is Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a globetrotting expert on global poverty and development. He’s scheduled to present the conference’s opening paper. He shares the platform with a Honduran cardinal who heads Francis’s Council of Cardinals and in effect puts a papal stamp on the proceedings.
It’s the Sanders invitation that put the otherwise obscure conference in the headlines. Now that it’s there, we’ll see a lot of attention to the presence of the two South American radicals.
But there’s an intriguing, unspoken symbolism in the convening of an international Catholic conference on social and economic justice at which two central figures — the keynote speaker and the most visible celebrity — are the program’s only two non-Christians, a pair of American Jews.
It speaks volumes about the continuing role of Jews in the cause of social progress. At a time when so many voices in the world look at the Jews as a sort of right-wing force, and so much of the Jewish community’s attention is trained on fighting off the left, the reality is that Jews continue to lead the good fight. Leave it to the Vatican to notice.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JJ_Goldberg
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).