Pope Francis Downplays Bernie Sanders Meeting, Says He's 'Not Getting Involved In Politics'

On Saturday, amid news of a meeting between U.S. presidential candidate and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis of the Vatican, the pontiff himself spoke out, seemingly tamping down any suggestion that he's in any way trying to weigh in on the American political process. As BBC News detailed, Pope Francis downplayed his meeting with Bernie Sanders, characterizing it as a polite greeting, and nothing that could be described as "getting involved in politics."

When news broke that Sanders would be flying to the Vatican immediately following Thursday night's presidential debate, it was far from usual or customary. With a massive primary in New York just days away, and still being in the thick of a battle for the Democratic nomination with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it's a somewhat unusual move, right? Hit pause on your campaign for a papal visit?

But Sanders was effusive in praising Pope Francis and named him as one of the world's great leaders, on the strength of his advocacy for economic justice and forceful warnings on climate change. He did make it clear to NBC News that he wasn't aiming for a papal endorsement, however, as he answered their question on that front with an "oh God no."

All the same, there does seem to be a bit of a discrepancy between how big a deal this meeting was for Sanders and for Francis. Following their interaction, which NBC News characterized as the two running into each other in the lobby of the Casa Santa Marta (where the Pope keeps his residence), Francis was downplaying the whole thing. Here's how he described the encounter, according to the Associated Press.

This morning when I left, Sen. Sanders was there. ... He knew I was leaving at that time and I had the kindness to greet him and his wife and another couple who were with them. ... When I came down, I greeted them, shook their hands and nothing more. This is good manners. It's called good manners and not getting mixed up in politics. If anyone thinks that greeting someone means getting involved in politics, they should see a psychiatrist.

Conversely, Sanders told the AP that the meeting was a "real honor," and called the 79-year-old leader of the Catholic faith "one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history." He also described Francis to ABC News as being a "beautiful man," and having a "radiance" about him. It's a pretty stark divide, although it's not surprising that Sanders would come away touting the visit more positively — after all, the economic and environmental aspects of Pope Francis' tenure dovetail neatly with Sanders' own policy proposals, while Francis would obviously prefer to not be seen as meddling in foreign politics.

It'll be interesting to see whether the visit moves any opinions back home for Sanders, especially considering he departed the U.S. at a pretty big moment in his campaign. The New York primary is on Tuesday, April 19, and he's currently trailing there by more than ten points in the polls, with a whopping 291 delegates on the line.