Why Is Bernie Sanders In Vatican City? The Issue He'll Discuss Is "Very Dear" To Him

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders will take a short hiatus from his campaign ahead of a key primary in New York to visit the Vatican, his campaign announced Friday. Sanders will head to Vatican City to attend a conference on social, economic, and environmental issues hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences the day after debating rival Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn.

"I am delighted to have been invited by the Vatican to a meeting on restoring social justice and environmental sustainability to the world economy," Sanders said in a press release put out by his campaign Friday. "Pope Francis has made clear that we must overcome 'the globalization of indifference' in order to reduce economic inequalities, stop financial corruption and protect the natural environment. That is our challenge in the United States and in the world."

Sanders told the Washington Post he would be attending the conference to speak about "an issue that is very dear to my heart" — creating a moral economy for the 99 percent, not the one percent. The Vermont senator will also touch upon climate change and "the moral imperative to make sure we leave this planet in a way that is healthy and habitable for future generations."

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Sanders said he was not sure if his visit to Vatican City would include a meeting with Pope Francis, who he has often referenced in campaign speeches."I am a big, big fan of the pope," Sanders said on MSNBC's Morning Joe Friday morning. "Obviously, there are areas where we disagree, on women's rights and gay rights. But he has played an unbelievable role -- an unbelievable role -- of injecting a moral consequence into the economy." The two men share similar views on the importance of tackling income inequality.

Some, however, have questioned if Sanders participation in the conference isn't a political play to garner Catholic votes ahead of a key primary. Margaret Archer, the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, told Bloomberg Sanders had approached them about obtaining an invitation and accused him of "monumental discourtesy." "I think in a sense he may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly," she said. Sanders has said he was grateful for the invitation and considered it "an extraordinary honor."

The conference celebrates the 25th anniversary of the "Centesimus Annus," an encyclical written by Pope John Paul II in 1991 that addresses some of the same political and economic issues Sanders' campaign touches on, including workers' rights.

Sanders' Vatican visit falls just four days before New York's April 19 primary, which has become a competitive and combative race as Sanders attempts to capitalize on his recent win streak — the latest of which occurred Tuesday in Wisconsin — to take Clinton's home state from her.