When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s very fine “Bad Religion” published a half-dozen years ago, I commented then that what was so amazing was that Douthat — a convert to Catholicism and too young to have lived in one of the all-encompassing Catholic communities of Middle America in the 1960s — had managed to get the picture so right. Douthat had the details correct, right down to all-day Saturday basketball leagues to keep the Catholic boys running and out of trouble.
Parishes really were extended families, and if the varieties of the large, sprawling Catholic families came in two basic flavors — Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic — there was enough diversity sprinkled in, with some Eastern rite Catholics here and some mixed marriages there, that the tightly organized communities didn’t seem so to the kids. To a kid it seemed as though the summer parish festivals at Mount Carmel or St. James were somehow very different from each other when in fact it was the same carny operator moving from parking lot to parking lot, with the same rides and games (and gambling of course, for the parish took a cut and somehow this did not violate the laws of Ohio). The local church ladies cooked their own specialties, yet the faith that brought the volunteers out was the same old -school American Catholicism.