Major Themes in Death Comes for the Archbishop
Much like the twentieth-century poets David Jones and T. S. Eliot@ — the former a Catholic and the latter an Anglican@ — Cather uses her art to convey the themes of preserving the religious traditions of the past in order to restore order to the present and thereby ensure the future. In his verse play Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot wrote:
Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt.
This, in short, encapsulates the major themes of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Note that the cardinals in Rome select Latour specifically for his talent to order:
Our Spanish fathers made good martyrs, but the French Jesuits accomplish more. They are the great organizers. . . . Oh, the Germans classify, but the French arrange! The French missionaries have a sense of proportion and rational adjustment. They are always trying to discover the logical relation of things. It is a passion with them.
It is these ordering capabilities that Latour brings with him to New Mexico; a territory that is untamed and consists of several different cultures. His first responsibility is to restore the precepts of the Catholic Church to a diocese that has backslid into such disorderly conduct as corrupt and promiscuous priests and such neglected Catholic sacraments as baptism, confirmation, and marriage. The situation is explained in the Prologue: "This country was evangelized in fifteen hundred, by the Franciscan Fathers. It has been allowed to drift for nearly three hundred years and is not yet dead. It still keeps the forms of religion without instruction."
According to critic John H. Randall III, "The emphasis in this passage is on forms, on guidance, on discipline; what is wanted is ritual and the ordering of life which ritual brings with it." Latour is the embodiment of order and ritual, and he sets upon his duties to impose order on the New Mexico diocese. The diversity of the Southwest, however, presents several challenges. The Indians still adhere to their spiritual beliefs@ — a fact that Latour recognizes and respects. The Mexicans have blended superstitions into their Catholicism. The majority of whites in the region are Protestant.
Latour's character is introduced as he wanders lost in the desert. Analogies may be drawn to the Israelites searching for the Promised Land, or Jesus Christ's Lenten exile in the desert. As he thirsts for water, the Mexican village of Agua Secreta (literally translated as "Hidden Water") thirsts for Catholic renewal. In another section of the novel, Father Vaillant tells Latour of his encounter with a Pima Indian, who shows Vaillant a cave where the Indians have kept a chalice and other items used to celebrate the Catholic Mass. Vaillant remarks to Latour:
To me, that is the situation in a parable. The Faith, in the wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul's salvation. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to set free those souls in bondage.
The two interrelated themes of order and reclamation and preservation of the past are emphasized further with the construction of the cathedral at Santa Fe. Latour finds a rock in the New Mexico landscape to use as a cornerstone for his church because it reminds him of the churches in France. He brings an architect from France to construct the cathedral, insisting that the church reflect French and Catholic architectural traditions while also adhering to the Indian tradition of inconspicuous integration into the landscape. The bell used to sound the Angelus represents the history and traditions of the Spaniards, because it contains precious metals and alloys created by Moorish metallurgists.
The application of order through the rituals of the Catholic church and the European and Indian traditions of, respectively, art and coexistence with nature resulted in the eventual success of Latour and Vaillant in reintroducing Catholicism to New Mexico. Their success, in Cather's view, resulted in the preservation of the best aspects of civilization in the American Southwest in the nineteenth-century, namely a faith in worldly order controlled by the order of God.