Those old sayings stay with us for good reason. Our bones absorb them in childhood; we can never outgrow them. Later, as adults, we find ourselves forever surprised by the truth of them. No small part of our initial moral education is owed to Aesop. His bestiary brought warnings against all kinds of vanity, thick-headed mischief, and unkindness. His dictums came to us together with our first prayers.
Let us not fret here over his status as an historical figure or, as some surmise, a legendary one. What matters is that, writing three centuries before the author of Ecclesiastes, the creator of these tales remains our first catechist. Much on my mind recently have been two aphorisms we owe to the body of work identified as his: You are known by the company you keep and, alternately, Birds of a feather flock together.
Antiquity did not shy from the reality—the necessity—of bringing judgment to bear on character. No dithering non-judgmentalism addled Graeco-Roman wits. A swift, irrevocable act of judgment is central to two familiar Aesop’s fables. In The Donkey and the Purchaser, a shrewd farmer knows immediately the character of the animal he has bought by its beeline to the laziest, least productive of his barnyard companions.
Moral: Man is known by the company he keeps.
In The Farmer and the Stork, a net spread over newly seeded ground traps a stork amid pilfering cranes and geese. The stork pleads for his life. He is, he insists, a worthy stork, a bird of excellent character and not to be confused with that riff-raff caught in the net. Besides, he had no idea those fellows were stealing seeds. But the farmer will have none of it. Sorry, stork.
Moral: Birds of a feather flock together.
Appropriate to contemporary power struggles in the Vatican, with its factions and shifting alliances, the fables are a useful guide to the complexion of Francis’s tenure. The sanity of the ancient fabulist cuts through obfuscating decorums that grow by accretion, like a coral reef, around the papacy. In Aesop’s day as in our own, men can be known by the company they keep. And Francis keeps close to two curious birds: Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríquez Maradiaga and Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina.
Vatican-watcher John Allen, writing on Crux, recently dubbed the cardinal a “vice-pope,” plausibly the second most powerful man in the Church:
He’s the leading symbol of an entire cohort of center-left churchmen who seemed marginalized not so long ago, but who today are clearly back in the game.
Among factors in that earlier marginalization were a tendency to malapropos statements plus an unwelcome whiff of anti-semitism. Allen reports that he likened criticism of the Church over the child abuse scandal to persecution under Nero, Diocletian, Hitler and Stalin. Moreover:
He went as far as to suggest that the American media’s obsession with the scandals was a way to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of a Jewish lobby. . . .
In the years to come, there was whispering that Rodríguez’s rhetoric wasn’t matched by a command of policy details, including affairs in his own country.
Head of Caritas Internationalis, Maradiaga is on record insisting that the freedom to immigrate is a human right. He does not trouble to note that one nation’s moral obligation to permit emigration does not obligate any other nation to suspend its requirements for legal arrival by accommodating illegal entrants. With the absence of rule of law driving havoc in the cardinal’s own Honduras, it is unclear how the poor can be served for any length of time by suspending the bedrock of civil society elsewhere.
At a recent press conference in Rome, the cardinal was back in the news with Manichean denunciations of critics of Francis’s climate ambitions:
The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that does not want to stop ruining the environment because they [sic] don’t want to give up their profits.
The pathetic fallacy inherent in ascribing a malevolent want to complex market systems is demagogic. Personification is a poeticism, not a means of critique. Applied here, it is as misleading as it is sentimental; it reveals the demonizing temper of old Soviet tracts. An ideological position that echoes leaflets from the October Revolution, the cardinal’s dime store bolshevism reduces Christianity to a political movement that conforms to the dominant trend among left-leaning elites.
Capitalism’s imperfections are real. No one denies that; nor does anyone deny the validity of reasonable regulation. At the same time, the never-fully-free market has produced sustained growth in living standards for more people than any other system ever devised. It has taught nations that prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Even Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French economist touted by Maradiaga last year, has since walked back his now-famous prediction that capitalism will generate “unsustainable inequalities” in this century.
How else does the cardinal propose that nations organize mechanisms for the creation and distribution of those goods, services and opportunities for initiative that make possible the alleviation of poverty? Central planning? Five year plans? The Venezuelan model or the Cuban one? Maradiaga suggests no alternative to the capitalism he vilifies. But we can gauge the nature of that unspecified vision by looking at the aims of the Global Catholic Environmental Movement, of which Caritas Internationalis is a critical part. The movement seeks to insure that the climate does not warm more than 1.5° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.
Think through the implications of that to gain purchase on the quality of mind counseling the man elected to guide a Church consecrated to Truth. We are left to pray that more heedful and substantive advisers assert themselves.
Then there is that other trusted adviser, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina. A native of Buenos Aires and member of the pope’s inner circle, he worked closely with Jorge Bergolio drafting the then-archbishop’s major speeches and letters. Fernández was crucial to the composition of Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium and ghost-wrote the (now postponed) encyclical on climate change.
Postponement is the consequence of disapproval—on theological grounds—by Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Vatican scuttlebutt has it that the eco-encyclical will be downgraded, emerging simply as a statement. We will see. What matters at the moment are the archbishop’s dispositions and cast of mind.
Who is the theologian behind two papal encyclicals? One hint might be the book he wrote twenty years ago: Sáname Con Tu Boca: el Arte de Besar (Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing). The choice of nouns is telling. A kiss can have ritual significance. But the word mouth, a body part, conjures up other behaviors. It certainly did for the producers of an Argentinian television drama Esperanza Mia, the saga of a priest and nun secretly engaged in a love affair. The script called for display of Fernández’s book and the reading of passages from it. Clearly, the archbishop is a versatile writer.
I do not know what year this photograph of Fernández was taken. All that is obvious is that it is a staged shot. It is impossible not to wonder what prompts a priest to pose for the camera in this attitude. Possibly it is an Argentine commonplace that loses—or gains—too much in translation. But the instant I saw it I thought of Mann’s Death in Venice. Here is Gustave Aschenbach pining wistfully for Tadzio.
It is hard to know what to say. Let me leave the last word on this pair of papal intimates—Maradiaga and Fernández—to Aesop. In The Fox & The Toad, also called The Quack Frog, a well-tailored toad comes to town passing himself off as a learned physician and promising cures for ailments. A skeptical fox pipes up to ask, “How can we believe you if you cannot heal yourself of that ugly wrinkled skin?”
Moral: Those who would mend others, should first mend themselves. Or, as we are more used to phrasing it: Physician, heal thyself.
This essay originally appeared at First Things. It has been reprinted with the author’s permission.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
She also keeps the weblog Studio Matters [www.studiomatters.com] She can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @mmletters.