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. 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.
"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 AP. "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." (The New York Times notes that Sanders differs with the pope on certain other issues, including gay rights.) Monsignor 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. 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.