John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
Once I rescued an abandoned dog I found on the street and named him “Ratzinger.” He was a beagle, like my beloved Susie, though it might have been hard to tell—since half of his fur was missing, he was covered in bleeding sores, and his ears were profoundly infected. He smelled awful, and had no interest in anything but eating. (I later learned from neighbors that his real name was “Homer” and that his jackass owners had left him in their yard, throwing him nothing but bowls of food.) He was tied to a parking meter, covered by some well-wisher with a blanket, and waiting for animal control to come pick him up and euthanize him.
I brought him into the house, spent a month’s rent at the vet getting him back to health, and through a no-kill shelter found him a loving home, which raises the question of why I gave him that name, and what it meant. Ratzinger was not yet the pope—just my favorite cardinal, a man who’d been excoriated and degraded through endless pages of the ill-intentioned press for more than a decade, merely for having actually done his actual job as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. I don’t need to share with the reader the weariness every faithful Catholic felt every time he read some pagan at the NY Times feign surprise that the doctrinal officer of the Catholic Church supported… the official doctrines of the Catholic Church. To assuage the lasting, justified bitterness that rises in your gorge at this point, let me remind the reader of how the Times condescended to Ronald Reagan when he called on Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” The Times, which printed lies about the Ukrainian famine while it was happening, will always be the last to tell the truth. Get used to it. It will lower your blood pressure.
So why name a lost-dog after a battered and widely-hated cardinal? The obvious reason was this: He looked like him. That baggy, poochy, benevolent face with big brown eyes reminded me of the man I had looked to with flickering hope for more than a decade, since he’d published The Ratzinger Report, which told with unblinking truthfulness what faithful Catholics had been whispering for years: The Church was under siege, and the enemy was within.
But there was more to it than that. I saw in the helpless innocence of this kind, abandoned, dog the absolute goodness that St. Thomas reminded us persists in every animal. Every one of them (lucky dog!) is free of original sin, and his every action—be it barking at skateboarders, or even pooping on the floor—is perfectly pleasing to God. These creatures show us the beauty, the goodness, the natural joy that God meant for each of us, which our ancestor Adam sacrificed by sin, which each of us gleefully sacrifices every day. I saw in the dog the goodness of creation which Cardinal Ratzinger reasserted in all his writings, the hope the cardinal carried in those shining Teutonic eyes. I hoped that someday there would be a great and good pope who might be named for my dog.
And I was not disappointed. Little Ratzinger now lives in Brooklyn. Big Ratzinger has served our beloved Church with love—but more than that, with HONOR—and now he goes to a well-deserved rest. Glory to God for every dappled thing.