US Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks at a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of 'Centesimus Annus,' at the Vatican, April 15, 2016.
US Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks at a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of 'Centesimus Annus,' at the Vatican, April 15, 2016.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders slammed global inequality as "immoral" and decried the "greed of the fossil fuel industry" as he addressed a conference at the Vatican Friday.

The U.S. senator from Vermont is taking a 24-hour break from the campaign trail to attend the conference on social, economic and environmental issues.

Although Sanders' staff insists the visit did not have political motives, his Vatican address focused on many of the same themes as his campaign stump speeches.

"At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable," Sanders said.

Sanders also said it was necessary to ingrain "moral principles" into the global economy. "And there is no area where that is clearer than the area of climate change. The greed of the fossil fuel industry is literally destroying our planet," he said.

The democratic socialist Sanders has repeatedly expressed admiration for Pope Francis, who has focused on topics such as economic inequality and climate change during his time as pontiff.  However, the two are not expected to meet.

Sanders hopes the trip will help attract Catholic voters in New York, which holds a primary election Tuesday. Sanders must win the state to have any realistic chance at overcoming the lead of his rival, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


Sanders' Vatican trip came hours after he engaged in a feisty presidential debate with Clinton in New York.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie San
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, April 14, 2016.

It was the most contentious debate yet between Clinton and Sanders. The two exchanged personal insults and tried to out-shout one another as they questioned each other's judgment and experience on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy to climate change.

Clinton, the former New York senator, has a double-digit lead in most opinion polls ahead of the state's Tuesday election. But she needs a win to stop the momentum of the Brooklyn-born Sanders, who has won seven out of the last eight nominating contests.

On Thursday, Sanders kept up his recent attacks on Clinton's support for the Iraq war and acceptance of campaign funds from Wall Street banks. But he backed away from his earlier comments that Clinton was not qualified to be president.

"Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president? Of course she does, but I do question, I do question her judgment. I question a judgment that voted for the war in Iraq," Sanders said.

Clinton: Sanders' attacks 'phony'

Clinton, meanwhile, accused Sanders of waging a "phony" attack. "Senator Sanders did call me unqualified. I've been called a lot of things in my life, that was a first," Clinton said.

Clinton also pushed back on Sanders' accusation that she is not tough enough on big banks, saying she called them out during her time as a U.S. senator. That statement prompted a sarcastic reply from Sanders.

"Secretary Clinton called them out, oh my goodness they must have really been crushed," Sanders said. "Was that before or after you received huge sums of money [from the banks] by giving speaking engagements?"

The debate was a reflection of just how intense the rivalry has become between Sanders and Clinton, who, during the first several months of the campaign, very rarely launched direct attacks at each other.

Trump defends 'New York values'

New York's presidential primary could also have an important impact on the Republican presidential race.

During a gala at a Manhattan hotel Thursday, New York real estate mogul Donald Trump took aim at his main rival, Texas Senator Cruz, who has repeatedly slammed "New York values" in an attempt to attract conservative voters.

FILE- Republican presidential candidate Donald Tru
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Times Union Center in Albany, New York, April 11, 2016.

"In our darkest moments, as a city we showed the world the very, very best in terms of bravery, heart and soul of America," Trump said in reference to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. "These are the values we need to make America great again."

Polls show Trump with a large lead over Cruz and his other rival, Ohio Governor John Kasich, in New York. But he will need to capture a large share of the state's delegates if he is to have any hope of securing the Republican nomination before the party's convention in July.