WASHINGTON -- Imagine emerging from a rocky political week only to announce, as Bernie Sanders did, oh, by the way, the Vatican called. Actually, it was the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, but close enough, I suppose.
Hillary Clinton thought bubble: He’s Jewish for crying out loud. What am I, chopped liver? No, I’m Methodist! But if I can become a New Yorker, I can become a Catholic!
Some people have all the kismet. Or, maybe sometimes people just happen to agree communism isn’t really so bad. OK, I’m exaggerating, but only a smidgeon.
It should surprise no one the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences -- or especially Pope Francis -- might find common cause with Sanders’ worldview. Both the pope and the Bern speak of helping the disenfranchised and the poor.
But Sanders is a democratic socialist who wants to be president of the United States. And the pope is, well, the pope.
A pastoral leader who washes the feet of the homeless and eschews the elaborate trappings of the corner office, he’s the real deal, as in living as Christ did, spiritually if not physically. Also like Christ, he’s a radical. Just ask Sanders.
“People think Bernie Sanders is radical,” Sanders said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Uh-uh. Read what the pope is writing [these days].”
What’s radical about this pope is he, like both Sanders and Jesus, says fresh, untraditional things which sound an awful lot like liberal ideas. What he says (and writes) is aspirational both in scope and application. As popes often do, Francis asks us to love one another, which makes us uncomfortable because loving others ultimately means sacrificing our interests to others. This comes naturally with our children but not so much with strangers, whose behavior probably annoys us and, oftentimes, costs us money.
Sanders, who thinks more or less as Francis does, just makes us nervous. Some of us, anyway.
The core difference between the two men is one wants to raise consciousness about our obligation to the less fortunate; the other wants to restructure America’s economic institutions to ensure money trickles down -- mandatorily rather than charitably.
Theoretically, this is a noble concept. It’s how you do it which causes taxpaying citizens to seek shelter. Let’s face it, most of us work hard not for the satisfaction of a well-made widget but for a paycheck. As the taxman chisels away at such monetary rewards, where goes the incentive to work hard? This is common sense, obviously, but less common than it once was, judging by the popularity of Sanders’ proposals.
His bid to break up the too-big-to-fail banks sounds awesome enough: Let’s stick it to the fat cats and watch ‘em squirm. But will it really help the poor, or might such draconian action ultimately hurt more than it helps?
To the larger point, the highest priest urging morality in all human endeavors, including economic policies which fail to adequately address the needs of the poor, plainly comes from the heart. It’s important for Francis to speak out as a messenger for the greater good. It’s important, too, for us to be reminded of our moral obligation to each other.
It’s his job. It’s our job not to conflate a pope’s message of Christian charity with a political candidate’s promise to remake America’s economic system. The “rampant individualism” Francis condemns is precisely what has driven American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and a level of prosperity unmatched in human history.
That more people are doing less well -- and the middle class has suffered -- means there’s work to do, but it doesn’t necessarily require radical restructuring. The striving for greater equality is always a proper operating principle, but what Sanders is aiming for without saying so is equal outcomes. The imposition of equality by third parties never works very well and inevitably carries the unwelcome penalty of less freedom. Greater effort toward raising the bottom rather than tearing down the top would seem a better approach than extreme measures likely to have a destabilizing effect.
A pope needn’t worry about such things and is free to ponder the universe through the pulpit’s lens. He is also free to chat with politicians who share his worldview, though it isn’t clear whether he and Sanders will convene.
Still, a visit to the Vatican a couple of days ahead of the New York primary surely can’t hurt. If Sanders wins, one might even say it was divine intervention.