Commentary. The Vatican is flexible enough, or twisted enough, to keep a variety of characters in its inner sanctum.

Bernie Sanders in Rome: The Vatican and the American presidency

On Friday and Saturday at the Vatican villa Casina Pio IV, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences is convening a celebratory conference for the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s post-Soviet encyclical “Centesimus Annus.”

Along with the academy’s sociologists and economists, two Latin American heads of state will attend: Bolivian President Evo Morales and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Both are American representatives of 21st century socialism who converge with Pope Francis on issues of inequality, environmental crises and global justice, all of which will be discussed at the conference.

But among the guests will also be a social democrat: Sen. Bernie Sanders, a contestant alongside Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the United States.

Given the Argentine pope’s attitude, it’s no surprise he holds a favorable view of Sanders’ speeches — rather daring for the conservative United States — against the death penalty, military installations and foreign interference (all of which were the daily bread of Clinton when she was secretary of state, as she proudly recounts in her memoir, Hard Choices).

In truth, per Vatican diplomacy, there will be no official meeting between Sanders and Bergoglio. “It’s not on the agenda,” concluded Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, adding that the invitation was from the Pontifical Academy, not from the Holy See. The academy is directed by Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, a friend and adviser to the pope, who, like the pope, was born in Buenos Aires.

Sanchez Sorondo, together with the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, organized the meeting with the popular organizations, first at the Vatican and then in Bolivia, during Bergoglio’s journey to Latin America. There, Morales gave him a sickle-shaped cross and hammer, sculpted by Luis Lucho Espinal, a Jesuit who walked alongside the Marxists and who was murdered by the military dictatorship in 1980.

The photos, shared around the world, showed the pope’s astonished expression, but not his response. And certainly not the frown that the pope wore during his visit with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, the neoliberal who is dismantling rights earned during the years of Kirchnerism.

The occasion today, however, recalls another pope of a different era, the social document of John Paul II, the pope warrior friend of Reagan, written after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A pope who would not only have ostracized Morales, but also the much more moderate Sanders. The senator from Vermont was still being “beaten,” both by the press of his country and abroad.

As soon as Sanders heard about the conference, it’s been said, he chased down the Vatican for an invite and then hastened to declare to the press that he had received one from the Holy See: apparently to attract the Catholic vote. Sanders is Jewish. He protested with the academy but also with labor lawyers like Pietro Ichino, who felt an “egalitarian” dissonance with Sanders.

But the social democrat senator, after a crowded rally in Washington Square and a Brooklyn debate with Clinton, left for Rome, where he will stay for less than 24 hours. “I know it’s taking me away from the campaign trail for a day, but when I received this [invitation] it was so moving to me that it was something that I could just simply not refuse,” Sanders told The Washington Post. Whatever happens, he will have one more card to play in the important New York primary vote on Tuesday.

And on the other hand, the ways of the Vatican, if not eternal, are flexible enough or twisted enough to accommodate a cardinal like Turkson and a character like the Honduran Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga. Rodríguez Maradiaga was to become pope in place of Bergoglio. A Salesian, he was appointed cardinal in 2011 on the advice of Wojtyla and is a trusted friend in Washington: able to express himself in a constructive manner on any flaw or American problem, according to leaked American diplomatic cables. And in fact he has sided with the coup plotters who, at the direction of the CIA, deposed Honduran President Zelaya in 2009.

Many have spoken out against the cardinal — who reportedly received a monthly salary of $5,000 from the Honduran government that preceded Zelaya — including the Argentine Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. But in an article in Tiempo, published Jan. 21, 1982, the priest Fausto Milla denounced Rodríguez Maradiaga for complicity with the military, calling him “more like a colonel than a shepherd.” Today Rodríguez Maradiaga is one of the closest men to Bergoglio.

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