The Papal Invitation That Wasn’t

When I sat at my computer Friday morning and saw that Bernie Sanders had been invited to the Vatican I was stunned. Though I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Illinois primary, my reaction was not the Democratic nomination. I thought “wait, this has to be wrong, there is no way the Vatican could be this dumb, it is bad for the Vatican to get embroiled in a US election.” Through the course of Friday it became obvious that in fact no office that directly represents the Pope or is an important body of the Holy See was involved in inviting Sanders to what turned out to be a conference of mostly academics. On why the Sanders campaign agreed to the trip I cannot say. I’m baffled by the decision. But regarding the machinations behind the decision, it appears the invitation was pushed by economist Jeffrey Sachs and American policy advocate and communications consultant Michael Shank. Sachs and Shank both have at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, and if they did in fact initiate the invitation, their actions undermined the interests of both Bernie Sanders and the Catholic Church.

To understand why the invitation and the intrigue around it are so weird it’s helpful to understand a few things about the institutions involved. “The Vatican” can mean many different things, and never all of them at once. Roughly speaking, the Holy See is the ecclesial, administrative, doctrinal, and diplomatic authority of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is its head. An administrative body, the Curia, with a few thousand members, including some lay-people but with senior officials all clergy appointed by the Pope, are in charge of a web of bureaucracies that govern the Church. These bureaucracies and other important bodies—such as the Vatican museums and library, and St Peter’s Cathedral—are located within Vatican City, which since 1929 is the recognized sovereign territory of the Holy See. In the narrowest sense, “the Vatican” is like referring to the CIA as “Langley” or the US auto industry as “Detroit.” It is a sovereign territory, but it’s more a place, than the institution, which is the Holy See. Though a city-state, the Vatican does not conduct diplomacy; diplomacy is conducted by the Holy See. It has never sought full state status, but the Holy See has Permanent Observer status at the United Nations.

Bodies that conduct diplomacy generally avoid taking sides in the elections of other countries, in particular when they can do little or nothing to influence the outcome. (But not always.) So that was the first indication something wasn’t right about the supposed invitation of Sanders to come to meet with the Pope.

It also was strange that such an important announcement would be made not by the Papal Secretariat of State or the Pope’s press office, but by Sanders, as an aside, on some morning talk shows. On The View, he even said he would be meeting with the Pope. Furthermore, on Friday the Vatican released a long-awaited papal encyclical, Amoris Laetitia, on the Church and the family. It is inconceivable that the Vatican would drop a political bombshell like inviting Sanders on a day it would want discussion to be on the encyclical.

As it turned out, the invitation was not from what people usually mean when they refer to the Vatican or The Holy See, or the Pope. It was from the relatively obscure Pontifical Academy of Social Science.

There are several Pontifical Academies, including the Pontifical Roman Academy of Archeology, and the Pontifical Theological Academy. Similar to Britain’s Royal Society, the Pontifical Academy of Science (PAS), founded in 1603, is a non-sectarian academic society for advancement and understanding of the natural sciences. Its sister academy, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS), was founded 22 years ago, and receives funds from the Vatican, but operates autonomously. It was PASS that extended Bernie Sanders the invitation to come to Vatican City to attend its conference “Centisimus Annus 15 Years Later.”

This makes much more sense. This is not the Pope, or any major office of the Holy See, that invited Bernie Sanders to the Vatican. It is a scholarly academy, established by Pope John Paul II, that granted him permission to attend, but not have an official speaking role, at a scholarly symposium on the twenty-fifth anniversary of a papal encyclical. [UPDATE: The agenda was changed this morning {April 11}, Sanders now has a ten minute slot before a coffee break Friday afternoon.]

I imagine shortly after Sanders’ announcement there was widespread confusion within the Holy See’s Secretariats of State and Communications and in its diplomatic mission in Washington D.C.. By Friday afternoon the Director of the Vatican’s press office said the invitation had not come from the pope, “but from a Vatican institution,” and that he had no knowledge the Pope was even aware of the invitation. The president of PASS had already unloaded on Sanders for what she said was his “monumental discourtesy” in asking for an invitation and not going through her office.

On Friday the Chancellor of PASS, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, said he had extended the invitation, and the Sanders campaign quickly proffered his invitation. But one of the conference participants, economist Jeffrey Sachs—an advisor to Sanders—had, according to The Atlantic, helped facilitate the invitation. And around that time, the Sanders campaign did something extraordinary: it directed press inquiries about its candidate to someone presumably not on the campaign payroll and with no authority to speak on behalf of the campaign: communications consultant Michael Shank.

Shank has written and done advocacy on a wide range of issues, and has worked or consulted for numerous elected officials, government agencies, and NGO’s. In the context of the Sanders/Vatican incident, a few things leap out. According to his website, “he handles communications for Professor Jeffrey Sachs.” He has also been a communications consultant for PASS.

Shank is also quite transparent about his antipathy toward Hillary Clinton and his lack of respect for Obama’s presidency. In 2007 he criticized both Clinton and Barack Obama: “Elect Clinton, it seems, and we elect Bush.” And “it appears as if Obama is becoming as Bush-lite as his competitor Clinton.” He’s called Obama a “right of center president,” and asked “Obama worst climate pres?”

Shank has also referred to the Clinton “dynasty,” like the Bush family, “both monarchies undermining democracy.” He’s lauded—and possibly co-written?—Sachs’ opinion pieces attacking Clinton and praising Sanders.

Shank has also done his share of praising Sanders and complaining about his mistreatment by the media. He’s described a potential Sanders foreign policy. He’s alleged that NBC is biased toward Clinton because it’s owned by GE, which for tax reasons “love her Wall St bias.” He’s characterized New York Times pieces as “propaganda” and said the Times was in the “pockets of the Clinton campaign.” And last July he tweeted a quote of Sanders comparing himself to the Pope, and ended the tweet with “@CasinaPioIV,” which is the Twitter account for PAS and PASS.

@CasiniaPioIV shows up frequently in Shank’s Twitter feed, including many praising both PASS & Sachs, others praising only PASS or specifically Sanchez Sorondo. And Thursday, the night before Sanders announced the invitation, Shank posted this:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.11.08 AM

It could be a coincidence of timing, but much more likely is Shank knew the announcement was coming the next morning.

But this is more revealing:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.14.09 AM

I have to imagine the men in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State will be apoplectic if they see reports of the appointees and/or staff of a Vatican-affiliated institution allowing public reports of their partisan-oriented musings on American electoral politics being attributed to the Vatican.

What should be troubling about all this to the Vatican is the overlapping interests here between Shank, Sachs, Sanders, and PASS, and the appearance that Sachs and Shank parlayed their connection with PASS to use the Vatican and the Pope to help Bernie Sanders become President. A Vatican-affiliated institution is paying a man—Michael Shank—who also has some kind of official status with the campaign of a US presidential candidate. It also has a close relationship with another man, a famous academic, who has an official role with the same presidential candidate’s campaign, and has been a vicious critic of that candidate’s opponent. The Vatican-affiliated institution has invited the US presidential candidate who one of its consultants and one of its prominent collaborators are supporting in official capacities, and it never offered the candidate’s opponent the same opportunity.

It’s hard not to think Jeffrey Sachs and Michael Shank used their status and relationship with PASS and Bishop Sanchez Sorondo—with whom Sachs was on a panel a few days earlier—to use the Vatican to help out their candidate (who, it’s worth pointing out, as president could even offer positions in his administration to both Sachs and Shank). Whether their manipulations–if in fact that’s what happened–help Sanders, is questionable. I do not see a net positive in Sanders leaving the country a few days before a crucial primary. What is not in doubt is that whoever maneuvered to get Sanders invited to Vatican City did a disservice to the Roman Catholic Church.

Sachs and Shank obviously are committed to social and global justice, which are central to Catholic social teachings, and are at the heart of Francis’ radical—not liberal or progressive, but radical—Papacy. But neither is Catholic. In fact, Shank has written that the climate conference at PASS, made him “a believer again,” but not in God, as he remains non-religious, but “rather in our ability to get something done on climate change.” That faith is admirable, and something he and I share. But that faith, in the absence of communion with and allegiance to the Catholic Church, appears to have pulled the Church in to secular concerns that benefit Sachs, Shank, and Sanders, but are not in the best interests of the Holy See, the Pope, and the Church.

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5 Responses to The Papal Invitation That Wasn’t

  1. Thanks for unpacking this. I’m particularly interested in the tension between Margaret Archer, laywoman appointed as head of the PASS, and Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Academy. I had seen another report of a statement by Sorondo that said he had issued the invitation “with the consensus of” Archer. One wonders exactly what that “consensus” consisted of, and whether it was explicitly affirmed by Archer or merely assumed by Sorondo.

  2. Pingback: Letter #28, 2016: Bernie and the Pope - Inside The Vatican

  3. Lori says:

    Lol, the author is so blatantly biased…making sure to try to reduce Sanders honor of speaking at the conference as a “10 minute slot before a coffee break” is pathetic and transparent by any intelligent reader.

    • Laurie J Duplessis says:

      I’ll agree that the author may be biased, especially since he declared that himself. This is actually a pretty accurate description of the way things transpired, though. It would appear that someone in Bernie’s campaign orchestrated this to try to elevate his importance in world politics. Sadly, Bernie doesn’t seem to understand how the situation was being manipulated, or he wouldn’t have done the talk show circuit talking about being invited by the pope, or meeting him — because neither were even remotely true, and Bernie, although sometimes misguided, in my opinion, is really not a liar. The Pope’s spokesperson, hearing of the publicity surrounding the supposed invitation, had already put out a statement disavowing any connection. It broke my heart to seem him blushing with pride, when I watched the taped interviews later, because I’d already read that and figured out that this was an inside spat, purely political in its intent, and using the pope and the Vatican inappropriately. It worked, too, because there are memes all over facebook about how the Pope only saw fit to meet with ONE of the candidates, yadayadayada. But, recognizing how proud Bernie was of being “asked” to attend, I’m glad he did get to go.

      Bishop Sarando has since clarified that it was Bernie’s group that first approached him and asked for the invite (in an interview with CNN), to reinforce what this author is asserting. I have a feeling Saranda’s trying to dig himself out of a hole, after committing a real no-no by invoking the Pope’s name disingenuously for publicity to promote his own political agenda. His role in PASS is as chancellor, only, which in this case makes him sort of a go-between the Academy and the Vatican. The Academy is a group of experts in economics and social sciences, getting together several times a year to discuss their thinking. Their purpose is to advise the Pope in these sciences so he can determine how he can best implement his own policies in a manner that works. The Academy’s president’s anger over Bernie’s having been invited, without her knowledge or consent, was in part grounded in the fact that this meeting was not a policy discussion, and Bernie is not an academic with any kind of expertise to add otherwise. Sad as it is, that’s true. And Bernie’s speech, if you read it (it’s posted on his campaign site), was eloquent, but not in the tiniest bit informative. He talks mostly about how much suffering there is in the world because of poverty — which the Pope certainly knows — and his feeling that addressing it is a moral imperative, not a political one — which the Pope also doesn’t need to be told!

      I doubt this whole flap will amount to much in our election (other than giving liberals more reason for infighting), or anywhere else outside of Church politics. I confess to being offended, though, by the arrogance and disrespect paid the Pope by not recognizing or appreciating his prominence, spiritual leadership, and commitment to making the world a better place without descending into self-serving, petty political spats.

  4. Look at the arrangements: no scheduled speaking slot beforehand where press could cover it: no guaranteed meeting with the pope: the inconvenient timing before a do-or-die primary. If this is honor, Sanders would have been better served by staying home and trying to close the gap between Hillary and himself. What he got for his $800k is really nothing but bad publicity. Most fitting for a man who has no manners, let alone a feel for protocol, who’s ego has gotten the better of him. Even Ted Cruz would have known better and had better manners, and that’s not saying much.

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