To people unfamiliar with the Catholic Church, news that the Vatican invited Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to give a speech at a conference in Rome must seem like the set-up to a punchline.
But as Pope Francis has reminded the world, Catholicism has a long and active tradition of social justice. True social justice, not the kind that involves retweeting memes about gender equality on the Brown University chess club.
The church spends billions every year on charitable services, according to The Economist. That money goes to health care, via a vast network of Catholic hospitals and hospices, as well as education, soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, homes for abused women, senior living facilities and innumerable other services to people in almost every country on the globe.
The Catholic Church is the world's largest charitable organization, several times over. The Catholic Church walks the walk.
That aligns with Sanders' views on economics and poverty, which is why the Vermont senator told MSNBC he was "very excited" that the Vatican invited him to a scholarly conference run by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Remove the attribution, and most people would have difficulty telling the pope's quotes on poverty, social justice and the 1 percent from Sanders' quotes on the same issues.
"He's trying to inject this sense of morality into how we do economics," Sanders said of Pope Francis, per the BBC, " ... and we need that absolutely desperately."
But as the story ricocheted between Rome and New York since the April 8 announcement, it's become clear that Sanders should steer clear of the conference.
First, there are the politics of appearances. The Catholic Church is loathe to interfere in U.S. politics and has a vested interest in keeping a distance from the world's sole remaining superpower. This is arguably why there's never been an American pope -- the church does not want to appear beholden to U.S. strength or interests.
That's probably at the heart of the dispute that popped up almost immediately after news of the invitation became public. The Vatican made it clear that the invitation was extended by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, not the Pope himself, The Daily Beast notes.
But more importantly for Sanders, the conference would have taken him to Rome on April 15, just four days before the crucial primary in New York that could tip the balance of the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders is coming off victories in seven of the last eight primary states, and of late Hillary Clinton's campaign has sounded like a wounded animal, licking its wounds and lashing out in desperation as it backs toward its den.
Maybe that's too dramatic a spin to put on it, but Clinton's adopted home state of New York is her den, and she must win New York. Aggregated polls on Real Clear Politics have Clinton up by 14 points in the Empire State, but Sanders is unloading serious campaign cash here in an attempt to steal Clinton's home court advantage.
With what's at stake, and all the money he's committed to competing in New York, Sanders needs to be here in the days leading up to the primary, doing what candidates do -- meeting regular people, shaking hands, giving stump speeches, and trying to win voter support.
Sanders shouldn't be discouraged by the Vatican flap. Of all people, a politician should understand how politics can complicate a simple invitation. But if he wins New York, Sanders will get his trip to Rome -- possibly as president of the U.S.
If he wants to make real social change, that route is the obvious choice.