Once in a hundred years a moment like this comes about. Invited by the Pontifical Academy of Social Science in the Vatican to its conference on social justice, the presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, travelled to Rome where he addressed some of the Catholic Church’s leading academics and churchmen. It was over one hundred years ago, as Sanders reminded the assembly, that Pope Leo XIII published his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum; in which the head of the Church spelled out his outrage at the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “That situation is worse today,” said the seventy-four year old Democratic Socialist. “In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom ninety-nine percent.”
Love opens our eyes and enables us to see the great worth of a human being.—
Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 10, 2016
Surely Sanders was wasting his time preaching on this criminal global inequality to one of the richest organisations in the world? Well, to answer this we have to seriously consider if the United States of America is any richer, and on top of this consider the truly hellish things it spends that money on. Of course the Catholic Church is stinking rich. It is sinfully opulent. No one is going to deny this. Yet like the United States it is a massive structure made up of millions of individuals – and among them are people just like Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis. Change only requires the right people to be in the right place at the right time.
The Vatican’s invitation to Sanders is evidence that wheels are turning within the Church in a direction Francis would prefer them to turn. It is an indication that what is happening in the US presidential race is important to the rest of the world, and Francis’ journey to meet refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos during this social justice summit underlines the fact that all of these bigger mechanisms are somehow related.
It has been a hundred and some years since Rerum Novarum, and Pope Francis knows that loyalty does not always mean blind and stupid obedience; sometimes loyalty, like Sanders’ loyalty to the American people, means taking a courageous stand against the prevailing tide. It is also almost a hundred years after the Wall Street Crash, the last time the wealthiest single percentile owned such a huge share of the world’s wealth. The losses to that centile have been regained, and then some, and we are seeing globally the horrific effect this is having – on people and on the environment. This visit to Rome has to give us some cause for hope. If nothing else it means that there are at least some of the right people in the right place at the right time.