Monday, April 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders at the Vatican

"We get our religion from Rome but our politics from home." So, supposedly, said Senator John F. Kennedy before running for President, presumably quoting conventional wisdom about Catholic participation in American politics. History has proven him largely accurate. So there is little reason to assume that the Pope's recent handshake with Senator Bernie Sanders will likely affect many votes in New York or elsewhere, any more than the Pope's previous critique of Donald Trump's position on immigration is likely in the end to sway many votes. And that is in spite of all the media speculation on the subject - or, as might be said in Rome, all speculation to the contrary notwithstanding even if worthy of special mention!

How prudent it was in an American election year to invite one of the principal presidential candidates to speak at a Vatican conference be debated and questioned, of course. But, be that as it may, from Sanders' perspective what he got to say at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' conference on the 25th anniversary of Pope Saint John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus was certainly well worth his trip. (Whatever one chooses to think of Sanders' prospects as a presidential candidate, he obviously has a good research staff that put together a good speech well versed in the trajectory of papal social teaching.)

Centesimus Annus, as its title indicates, was written to mark the hundredth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, and is thus to be seen as part of a developing magisterial tradition of papal pronouncements on social and economic matters continuing up to and including Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' last year. "There are," said Senator Sanders, "few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church's moral teachings on the market economy." Indeed! If only more politicians - and the general voting public, for that matter - recognized that!

Citing Pope Leo's groundbreaking 1891 encyclical's reference to "the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of many," Sanders pivoted to today's situation. In 2016, Sanders noted, "the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people - 60 people - own more than the bottom half - 3 1/2 billion people." From such stark facts, Sanders draws the evident conclusion that "we must reject the foundations of this economy as immoral and unsustainable."

Sanders may or may not prove to be the better candidate to address these issues in the general election. That is a question of prudent political judgment, which may be left to the voters in New York and elsewhere to decide. But he has certainly succeeded - probably more than he had ever initially expected - in putting the issue of capitalism's massive moral failures front and center in our American electoral politics, even as Pope Francis has helped move that same issue on the global stage. 

"The issue of wealth and income inequality," Sanders reminded the meeting of the Pontifical Academy, "is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time. It is an issue that we must confront in my nation and across the world."

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