Imagine emerging from a rocky political week only to announce, as Bernie Sanders did, that, 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: Heís Jewish for crying out loud. What am I, chopped liver? No, Iím 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 that communism isnít really so bad. Okay, Iím exaggerating, but only a smidgen.
It should surprise no one that the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences or especially Pope Francis might find common cause with Sandersís 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, heís the real deal, as in living as Christ did, spiritually if not physically. Also like Christ, heís a radical. Just ask Sanders.
ďPeople think Bernie Sanders is radical,Ē Sanders said Friday on MSNBCís ďMorning Joe.Ē ďUh-uh. Read what the pope is writing.Ē
Whatís radical about this pope is that he, like both Sanders and Jesus, says fresh, untraditional things that 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 othersí. 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 that one wants to raise consciousness about our obligation to the less fortunate; the other wants to restructure Americaís economic institutions to ensure that money trickles down mandatorily rather than charitably.
Theoretically, this is a noble concept. Itís how you do it that causes taxpaying citizens to seek shelter. Letís 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 Sandersí proposals.
His bid to break up the too-big-to-fail banks sounds awesome enough: Letís stick it to the fat cats and watch íem 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 that fail to adequately address the needs of the poor, plainly speaks from the heart. Itís important for Francis to speak out as a messenger for the greater good. Itís important, too, that we be reminded of our moral obligation to each other.
Itís his job. Itís our job not to conflate a popeís message of Christian charity with a political candidateís promise to remake Americaís economic system. The ďrampant individualismĒ that 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 thereís work to do, but it doesnít 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 that likely would have a destabilizing effect.
A pope neednít worry about such things and is free to ponder the universe through the pulpitís lens. He is also free to chat with politicians who share his worldview.
It isnít clear whether Sanders and the pope will actually meet. Still, a visit to the Vatican a couple of days ahead of the New York primary surely canít hurt. If Sanders wins, one might even say it was divine intervention.