Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

If you tune in to CBS at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of April, you will hear the following introit, delivered by Jim Nantz: “Hello, friends, and welcome to this tradition unlike any other.”

The final round of the Masters Tournament, hosted with meticulous precision by the Augusta National Golf Club, is held every year on that day. The veteran sportscaster’s greeting is one of the few tournament traditions not scripted by the club—though I have no doubt it is appreciated, since it captures the notions of heritage and distinctiveness that have made the Masters the signature golf event of the year.

Augusta National has long been an anachronism—sometimes charmingly, sometimes offensively. Though in recent years the media have spotlighted the club’s membership policies, Augusta’s most repulsive traditions regarded the players’ caddies, who were, by a club rule relaxed only in the 1980s, all black men. All but one of the thirteen titles collected by the celebrated trio of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player were won with the club’s in-house caddies, their anonymous black faces striking a contrast with their distinctive white coveralls—and with the white faces of the players and crowds.

Or, I should say, “patrons.” The usual terms—“spectators” or “fans”—suggest a gawking rabble, unbecoming of an institution as distinguished as Augusta National. Similarly, the term “rough” (for the taller grass framing the fairways and greens) is verboten, for there is nothing “rough” about Augusta National. The taller grass is the “second cut.”

The club polices speech jealously. It is said that at least two established broadcasters have been banned for life for verbal slip-ups: One referred to the patrons as a “mob,” and the other—take a deep breath—said that the perfectly manicured greens had been “bikini-waxed.” This year, club security has been ordered to remove any patron who shouts the popular Bud Light slogan “dilly dilly.”

But these regulations are not arbitrary: They are designed to preserve the mystique of the club as an Eden set apart from the vicissitudes of the world. At the Masters, there is no opioid crisis, no gun-control issue, no Donald Trump, no cultural and political decline. The only ads you will see on the television broadcast are for hand-picked, blue-chip companies more stable than most national governments: IBM, AT&T, and Mercedes-Benz. You won’t even see promos for other CBS programs, and so you won’t be reminded of the existence of Celebrity Big Brother.

Augusta National has used its cultural (and financial) capital to carve out a niche for itself to be itself, on its own terms. Not only does the club achieve something close to perfect consistency in what it controls directly, such as the appearance and condition of the golf course; it also controls the public’s interface with the club by controlling the intermediaries. If a broadcaster violates the rules, he will not be invited back. If CBS does not do its part to enforce the rules, it will not be invited back. The club insists on signing only year-to-year contracts with the network, so as to ensure its compliance.

By preserving and embracing its distinctiveness, Augusta National has thrived. This is a startling achievement in a society that finds security in featureless and easily comprehensible cultural landscapes, and consequently seeks to smooth anything too complex and particular into a barely distinguishable example of a type: just another sporting event; just another television broadcast; just another weekend distraction.

This is the fate that has befallen the Catholic Church and most Catholic institutions in America: Our institutional heritage has been reduced to just another university, just another charity, or just another religious organization. Catholic institutions—blessed with the supernatural heritage of the Church!—have too often behaved timidly and apologetically, acquiescing to the steamroller.

People don’t make quasi-spiritual pilgrimages to just another championship golf course. They treat Augusta National as special because it has made a massive effort to demonstrate that it is special. But in many parts of this country, even regions with tremendous Catholic history, the possibility of using cultural capital to assert the distinctiveness of the Church and her related institutions no longer seems possible. Like the prodigal son, we have dissipated our inheritance.

Where the cachet still endures, we almost uniformly see weakness. The University of Notre Dame remains the prestige Catholic brand in the United States, and in its home football games it has a sports media property comparable to Augusta National’s. But NBC’s broadcasts of Notre Dame football games are indistinguishable from any other broadcast. The viewer gets almost no sense that Notre Dame is a distinctive institution—and to the extent that such a message does get across (“Play Like A Champion Today!”), it does not distinguish the university as Catholic.

Imagine: Notre Dame could inform NBC that if a broadcaster took the Lord’s name in vain on the air, he would not be invited back. It could insist that advertising during Notre Dame games meet a baseline of decency. It could add a public prayer—say, the Hail Mary—to pregame festivities and demand that NBC broadcast it. And if NBC balked at any of these stipulations, another network would gladly sign up.

Instead, Notre Dame football has become just another program. And football is a trivial proxy for more substantive timidity: Notre Dame fought the HHS contraception mandate all the way to the Supreme Court—then acquiesced after winning the case. And Notre Dame is a proxy for timidity at Catholic institutions around the country. Hardly a month goes by without a minor outrage at a Catholic high school regarding some institutional dissent from secular liberal orthodoxy, and in the end the school almost always submits.

Augusta National does not so much point the way forward as suggest what might have been: an archipelago of Church institutions thriving as craggy masses of authentic catholicity in an otherwise undifferentiated landscape. These institutions could have been landmarks for Catholics as we try to navigate the slow-motion degradation of liberal culture. They could have served as the monasteries did in another era, as nuclei of Catholic life that drew people in as if by gravity.

But instead the Church is too often just another smoothed-over institution on the terrain of modern liberalism. Maybe there’s a small crucifix perched on top, big enough to be recognized by those looking for it, but not so big as to disturb the quiet horizon.

We don’t act as though the Church had something special to offer, and so, with rare exceptions when her irrepressible transcendence bursts forth, no one treats her as though she did. The problem, I suspect, is that we have internalized the liberal view that the Church is just another institution among many, and that what she has to offer is parochial, not universal. The first step, then, is to remember and embrace the truth that the Church really is what we say she is—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—and that what she has to offer is more beautiful than even the precious early-spring azaleas of north Georgia. 

Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Photo by Ken Lund via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles