The Vatican’s “invitation” to Bernie Sanders to speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS) on Friday has sparked a range of reactions. There are those who say it’s irresponsible for Sanders to travel right after his Thursday night debate with Hillary Clinton to give a ten-minute talk in Rome, just four days before the New York primary. There are those who see in it an attempt by the (male) Catholic establishment to block the election of a woman to the White House. Some see it as an endorsement of “the Jewish progressive agenda,” others as a direct attempt by Francis to advance a leftist agenda in U.S. politics.

None of this is true, so it’s not worth the time to dispute the accusations (except the one about Francis meddling in U.S. politics; we’ll get to that). But this comedy of errors does reveal something interesting about Francis’s Vatican and its politics.

It’s clear by now that the invitation, word of which emerged April 8, didn’t come from Pope Francis, or from the Secretariat of State, or from anyone who usually invites political leaders or accepts requests for audiences. It came instead from Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (originally from Argentina), chancellor of PASS. He bypassed Margaret Archer, its president, who was not shy in making public her surprise, saying it was a “monumental discourtesy” for Sanders to ask for an invitation without going through her office. Bishop Sorondo responded that Archer was aware of the invitation, in effect accusing her of lying.  

At some point over the weekend of April 8, somebody in the Vatican who is close to Pope Francis was told of the potential negative consequences of letting an American presidential candidate speak at the conference–a candidate who by that time had claimed on MSNBC that the invitation had come “from the Vatican” and who on ABC’s “The View” confirmed that the invitation had come from Francis, and that he would be meeting with the pope. 

It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have issued such an invitation just as Amoris Laetitia was being released; also unlikely is that it would risk a Sanders visit distracting from Francis’s meeting with refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16. But at this point it was too late for the Vatican to disinvite him; Sanders had announced his visit publicly.

What is not unimaginable is that the Vatican did its best to dissuade Sanders from coming by scheduling him to speak at 4 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. Eastern) on Friday, which would be just hours after the end of his Thursday night debate in Brooklyn. If it was meant as a signal—“please don’t come”—it either wasn’t received by the Sanders team, or wasn’t interpreted as such. Next, the Vatican tried to ignore Sanders and downplayed the pending visit; over the course of several press conferences, Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, never once mentioned Sanders. Only today (April 14) did he do so, officially announcing that Francis would not be meeting with the candidate.

We will see what actually happens in Rome on Friday. But for now, it’s worth considering the following.

Francis and politics. This “invitation” broke not only an unwritten rule of wise diplomacy—do not interfere with an electoral campaign and do not risk disappointing or antagonizing the eventual winner—but also a pattern typical of Francis’s relationship with politics and politicians, from whom he tends to keep a healthy distance, despite his engagement in political and social issues. He interacts with them as presidents, chancellors, ministers, and so on (Vice President Joseph Biden will be at the Vatican on April 29 for a conference on cancer, but he is a sitting official, not a candidate in the middle of a campaign). Francis does not like to push them, and he does not like at all to be pushed.

The social justice agenda of Francis and conflicts of interest. One of the least explored elements of this flap is the role of those who likely pushed for the invitation with Bishop Sorondo. There are indications that Jeffrey Sachs, a Sanders consultant, and Michael Shank, a communications consultant who has worked with Sachs, were involved. Both also have done work for the Vatican. The Sanders campaign has even, remarkably, referred Politico to Shank; Politico quotes him as having said he “occasionally” handles press relations for the Vatican. Shank himself has tried to characterize the invitation as an official one: “The PASS is part of the Vatican. So the senator is right when he says the Vatican invited him.”

Sanders and global politics. How Sanders has handled the matter of the “invitation” casts doubt on his judgment as a potential head of state (while revealing cynicism of those behind the scenes who pushed for it). A presidential candidate should exhibit greater knowledge about how the Vatican views its role in the world, not only as the center of the Catholic Church but also as a state involved in global diplomacy (and on which many other nations, including the United States, quietly rely for help in delicate situations around the world). Though Sanders among all candidates may seem closest to Francis on social justice issues, he was unwise to say this of the invitation: “I would be kicking myself forever if I did not seize the opportunity.” A scientist, a tourist, a celebrity, or an ordinary citizen can say this, not a candidate for president.

The Vatican’s line of communication with the American Catholic church. This episode has unfolded as a transition in the office of the apostolic nuncio to the United States, from Carlo Maria Viganò, who is retiring, to Christophe Pierre, is underway. Additionally, on April 7, the day before word of the Sanders invitation broke, Viganò was in Rome attending a high-priced fundraising dinner at the North American College, where he received the 2016 Rector’s Award. Still, how is it that no one—no U.S. bishop, no one at the Secretariat of State, no one at the office of the nuncio—was in communication over the issue of the invitation? In this sense, Sanders’s “invitation” is reminiscent of the Kim Davis episode during Francis’s visit to the United States last September.

The Vatican, U.S. politics, and the U.S. church. This happened because people on both sides of the Atlantic misread the intentions of Pope Francis regarding American politics based on answers he gave about Donald Trump during an interview on the papal flight from Mexico this year. The changes Francis embodies in the style of the papal office, and the shift on certain issues related to social and economic justice, has given some (Sanders included?) the idea that the Vatican is now a more flexible place, less bound by old rules and restrictions. This also has given some in the Vatican itself the idea that they can push an agenda on behalf of Francis while disregarding not only protocol, but also basic considerations about diplomacy (curious, given that the Vatican has the oldest functioning diplomacy in the Western world). The parties involved have underestimated the sensitiveness of relations between the Holy See and the United States, and, with the papacy of Francis, at a particularly delicate moment (I have to refer here to my book on Francis, and the final chapter in particular). The reception to Pope Francis in the United States is more problematic than anywhere else, given some of the political-theological alignments in U.S. Catholicism. Whether or not Sanders goes through with the trip, and whether or not he would have met with the pope, the episode certainly does not make things easier for Francis.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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