Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop depicts the struggle of Father Latour and Father Vaillant to reestablish Catholic authority in their newly formed, New Mexican diocese. They are tasked with righting a territory that has backslid into heathenistic conduct under the jurisdiction of priests that neither observe nor enforce several Catholic sacraments (celibacy, marriage, confirmation). As Latour familiarizes himself with his diocese, he discovers that the Indian cultures are parallel in value to European and Catholic cultures, and his humility wins over the natives. Cather uses Latour as a friendly colonial vessel, a paradoxical character that believes both in the futility and necessity of his work. Latour understands that his and Father Vaillant efforts are nothing but superfluous attempts to impose culture on a group of people that already have one. Though Latour recognizes the futility of his work, his continued insistence on interference in New Mexico betrays a certain measure of vanity and hypocrisy, unappealing characteristics of an Archbishop.
Towards the beginning of his reign as Archbishop, Father Latour recognizes that the fastest way to reinstate Catholicism in the dioceses is to replace the well-entrenched yet corrupt Mexican priests with more traditional clergymen. Latour undertakes these tasks because, as he wrote in a letter, he believes that he “can assist [the Mexican priests] more than they realize. The Church can do more than the Fort to make these poor Mexicans ‘good Americans’. And it is for the people’s good; there is no other way in which they can better their condition.” (pg. 35-36) The words “assist”, “poor” and “condition” reflect a blatant white-savior complex within Young Latour, and establishes the presumed moral elevation of the Church over the people the church presides over. Padre Martinez, a current priest presiding over Taos, feels the same way. Martinez warns Latour against interference in Taos, saying, “we have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil and has its own roots… The Church…planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and it is indigenous.” (pg. 146) Martinez defends his jurisdiction by invoking nature, arguing that his diocese is indigenous. A similar incident occurs when Vaillant visits the ranch of Manuelito Lujon. Upon his arrival, he demands that the men be brought in from the fields and married to their mates. The women of the ranch discuss the futility of Vaillant’s efforts. They say, “No, the times are not so good any more,” the other agreed. “And I doubt if all this marrying will make them any better. Of what use is it to marry people after they have lived together and had children?” (pg. 194) The women of the ranch recognize that their community’s situation is bad, yet they question the effectiveness of marrying people that have already had children. Both Martinez and the Lujon women raise a good point: how can priests impose foreign, Catholic traditions on a group of people ruled by cultures and temptations the priests cannot understand? Father Vaillant and Father Latour, both believing that they have a clear view of what is right/wrong, place themselves on a vain pedestal over the Indians. Thus, Martinez and the Lujon women identify a problematic aspect of Catholic intervention in the New Mexican dioceses: without the necessary integration into the Indian communities, the priests’ supposition of moral superiority make true connection impossible.
Several characters throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop laud Latour’s tolerant acceptance of Indian cultures, yet his role of white missionary belies his admiration of Indian tradition. While exploring surrounding dioceses with his Indian guide, Jacinto, Latour realizes that “there was no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him.” (pg. 92) Cather uses words such as “civilization” and “transfer” to suggest taming, a transference of enlightenment and religion from one, higher society to another, lower one. So, not only does Latour believe that the Indian mind would not be able to comprehend the nuances of European culture, he believes the Indian culture so deep that he could never understand it. Yet, throughout the second half of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Latour actively pursues his dream of building a Catholic cathedral in Santa Fe, picking the exact site and stone himself. To Latour, the cathedral would serve as a physical manifestation of his legacy. Cather writes that, “as [Latour] cherished this wish and meditated upon it, he came to feel that such a building might be a continuation of himself and his purpose, a physical body full of his aspirations after he had passed from the scene.” (pg. 175) Vaillant does not support the proposal, seemingly surprised at Latour’s materialism. He says, “I had no idea you were going in for fine building, when everything about us is so poor – and we ourselves are so poor.” (pg. 241) Vaillant’s objections are well-founded; in his years as Archbishop, Latour has witnessed firsthand the poverty under which several of the Indians live. Yet he says, “the Cathedral is not for us, [Vaillant]. We build for the future… It would be a shame to any man coming from a Seminary that is one of the architectural treasures of France, to make another ugly church on this continent where there are so many already” (pg. 212) The building of the cathedral can only be funded by the diocese’s indigent inhabitants, yet Latour argues that the cathedral will exhibit the strength of the Catholic church in the New Mexican region, a symbol that a man coming from the “architectural treasures of France” would appreciate. Despite his respect for native culture, Latour sees nothing wrong with taxing his diocese to fund a vain ode to his legacy and religion, a religion that, in many ways, is not the native’s own.
Ironically, the aspect of the Southwest that Latour loves most is the very thing that it is his duty to destroy. Latour, as he roams the desert in his retirement, revels in the wild air. He notices that “this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by men…the air [loses] that lightness, that dry aromatic odour…one could breath that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.” (pg. 444) And, in the above quote, Latour remarks that the air of New Mexico is light and pure because it has yet to encounter “men” that seek to tame it. As a missionary, Latour is one of these “men”, chosen to inundate the people of New Mexico with different aspects of a foreign culture that the Indians neither need nor necessarily want. The “men” turn the region’s “aromatic” air into something heavy and impure. Cather leaves the reader wondering whether Latour realizes that he, through his vocation, is part of the problem that taints the region he so admires. It is especially interesting that, earlier in the book, Latour wonders at the European habit of calling Indian males “boys”, untamed, adventurous, and young. Towards the end of his life, Latour notices that “In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older.” (pg. 444) Cather uses the words “New”, “young”, “rose” and “man” to convey youth and agility, a certain agency that liberates Latour until he is brought back to the reality of his age. Cather uses this description to highlight the distance between Latour and New Mexico, despite his longing to be close to the region: he is a “young man”, not a boy. New Mexico might youthen Latour, but he will never be a “boy” in the sense that the original inhabitants of New Mexico are boys. He can never reap the full benefits of New Mexican air because he was the one sent to tame it.
In conclusion, though Latour admires the Indian tradition and spirit, he can never fully connect with the natives of New Mexico because of his vocation and his insistence on interference even though he knows his efforts are futile. Very early in the novel, Latour realizes that the Indians are too entrenched in their own cultures to absorb the foreign ways of the Catholic church. Yet, throughout his tenure as Archbishop, Latour and his agent continue to advocate for change, “winning” some natives to their side (Magdalena), and alienating others (Martinez, Lujon ranchero women). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Latour serves as a symbol of the paradoxical nature of colonization.