WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Friday he will attend a Vatican City conference on social, economic and environmental issues next week, making the symbolic overseas trip ahead of a pivotal New York primary against Hillary Clinton.
The Vermont senator has long been an admirer of Pope Francis on issues of wealth inequality and social justice and his presentation to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on April 15 will allow him to reach a larger audience of Catholic voters in New York four days before the primary. Sanders trails Clinton among delegates and the New York contest is an important step in the senator's ability to gain ground against the former secretary of state.
"The moral imperative that (the pope) is bringing to this discussion is absolutely extraordinary and absolutely what the world needs. These are issues that I have been dealing with for years," Sanders said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
"On economic issues, on issues of poverty and income and wealth inequality, the issues of making sure we address the needs of the poorest people of this planet, this is something that the pope and I are very much on the same page," Sanders said.
It was not clear yet whether Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary, would meet with the pope during his trip. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said "if the opportunity arises he would be delighted to meet with the pope" but Sanders has not received an official invitation from the Catholic leader.
Attendees of the conference will include Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, along with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a member of the academy, and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, an adviser to the United Nations on environmental and sustainability issues.
Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the PASS, said he extended an invitation to Sanders because he seems to have a "real interest" in studying the papal documents issued by the pope. He did not issue invitations to the other presidential candidates.
"I don't see the other candidates quoting the pope in their campaign. I don't know if the other candidates are interested in the documents of the pope," he said.
A senior Vatican official told Bloomberg News that Sanders lobbied for the invitation and should not be injecting politics into the event.
"Of course it can have a political effect but this is not our priority," said Sorondo. "The first thing is to study and discuss the doctrine of the church."
Sachs, who has advised Sanders on foreign policy, said the invitation "reflects the very high resonance of the pope's messages on social justice and social inclusion with Bernie Sanders' messages on a fairer economy. He was excited, of course, to get the invitation."
The meeting will mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus, a high-level teaching document which advocated for economic and social justice and environmental sustainability.
Sanders will be speaking at the conference of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, an advisory group comparable to a think tank that the pope has appointed to guide him on a wide range of public policy issues.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst with the National Catholic Reporter and author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church," said it was unusual for a U.S. presidential candidate to be invited to participate in such an event in the middle of a campaign. European politicians and experts attend frequently, in part because they can more easily travel to Rome, he said.
But Reese cautioned that the invitation should not be interpreted in any way as an endorsement from the pope.
"Certainly the last thing Pope Francis wants to do is get involved in American presidential politics. He's made clear that he doesn't even want to interfere in Italian politics," Reese said.
Associated Press writer Rachel Zoll in New York and Lisa Lerer in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KThomasDC