Critical Essays Death Comes for the Archbishop as a Catholic Novel


By depicting the mysteries of the Catholic faith as well as the everyday evidence of divine order and the order imposed by the hierarchical presence of the Catholic Church in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather seems to be advocating for Catholicism. Although she admitted that she "felt that the story of the Catholic Church in [the Southwest] was the most interesting of all its stories," Cather also wrote, "Any story of the Church in the Southwest was certainly the business of some Catholic writer, and not mine at all." She nevertheless created the definitive fictional narrative of the role of the Catholic Church in the American Southwest.

Death Comes for the Archbishop addresses the history of the Catholic presence in the American Southwest from the earliest Spanish missionaries of the sixteenth century to the latter part of the nineteenth century. During this time, the Catholic presence underwent several permutations, from the devotional fervor of the earliest missionaries to the lapsed and decidedly worldly practices of such priests as Friar Baltazar Montoya, Padre Gallegos, Antonio Jose Martinez, and Padre Marino Lucero. Despite the depictions of these corrupt men, the Catholic faith is preserved by the inclusion of such characters as Padre Escolastico Herrera, who tells Latour the story of the Shrine of Guadalupe; and Padre Jesus de Baca, who possesses what Cather describes as a "quality of golden goodness" because he lives a life of austere poverty among his parishioners.

Miracles are depicted as common occurrences in the uncivilized Southwestern landscape. Miracles, interpreted as a rationally inexplicable event by Vaillant and as a naturally occurring indication of divine presence by Latour, contribute to the Catholic nature of the novel. Latour perceives as a miracle the appearance of the cruciform tree, which leads his pack animals to the Agua Secreta ("Hidden Water"). However, miracles that appear to be the direct intervention of the divine are also presented by Cather as in the depictions of the story of the Virgin Mary and the Shrine of Guadalupe and the story of Fathers Junipero Serra and Andrea, the two priests who seemingly receive the hospitality of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Christ after the priests become lost in the desert.

Perhaps more notable, however, is the miracle of religious faith in a land far-removed from the European culture of the Vatican and awash in prejudice, hardship, and cruelty. In Book Seven, Vaillant's unwavering faith and devotion to Mary is measured against Latour's brush with despair@ — in essence, the questioning of the very existence of God according to Catholic doctrine. The devotion to Mary in May conjures the rebirth of world in springtime. By contrast, Latour undergoes his moment of doubt in the winter month of December, when most natural life either dies, migrates or hibernates. As December is also the month in which the birth of Christ is celebrated, it is also the month in which Latour's faith is reborn upon meeting Sada, the old Mexican woman who maintains her religious faith against the brutality and irreverence of the Protestant family that enslaved her for nineteen years. Sada's devotion inspires Latour as a sign of God's mercy and presence in the everyday.

A lifelong Protestant, Cather joined the Episcopal Church in 1922. Critics and biographers have conjectured that she did not join the Catholic Church for reasons that may have been related to her Protestant upbringing, or because she was unable to reconcile what some scholars surmise was Cather's lesbian orientation with Catholic dogma expressly forbidding homosexual acts. Regardless of her own personal religious choices, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a quietly powerful document of the power of religious faith, when practiced properly, to transform lives, to civilize culture, and to serve as a reconciling agent between the physical and metaphysical realms.