An unbiased survey of the history of Western civilization that examines the role of the Catholic Church in the culture of nations will acknowledge her many contributions to the common good of all societies. History reveals that the Church founded schools, universities, orphanages, hospitals, and monasteries. The Church cultivated the arts in the architecture of Gothic and Romanesque churches, in the composition of Gregorian chant and sacred music, in the sculpture and paintings of great masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and in the poetry of Dante and Chaucer. Wherever the Church flourishes, culture advances and civilization enriches human life. As Christ taught, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Willa Cather’s Death Come to the Archbishop depicts the many benefits and blessings of the Church’s influence upon the common life of ordinary Mexicans and Indians that elevates human existence beyond mere survival. In the novel, the Church not only cares for the souls of all men and leads them to salvation through the Sacraments but also plays a great educational role in improving the lot of the ignorant and the superstitious. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant teach the Mexicans and Indians how to live ordered, balanced lives, to learn the importance of hygiene and diet in the care of the body, to overcome strange practices that haunt the religious life of Indian tribes, and to appreciate the nature of beauty and its transcendent power in exalting the life of the spirit.
The two missionary priests from France who travel to the American Southwest bring to the natives not only the moral teachings and Sacraments to nourish their spiritual lives but also their European culture and a body knowledge from many fields of learning that refines and improves the lives of the native population. Bishop Latour plants orchards and cultivates gardens to teach the natives the art of cuisine and to introduce soups and salads into an unvarying diet comprised mostly of beans and roots. The bishop brings to the territory the sisters of Loretto to establish a school for girls to educate young minds to appreciate learning and to uplift life above mere subsistence. Discovering a hidden bell, Father Vaillant installs it in the church to fill the air with its music, to organize the lives of the people with the discipline of punctuality, and to announce the times of prayer that govern the day. The two priests bring various kinds of order and discipline into the loose and casual lives of the natives who often “played with their religion” as the bishop observes or saw it merely as some “theatrical” performance. When Father Vaillant comes to one village to baptize the infants and marry the couples who have been living together as if married without the Sacrament of Matrimony, his host tells him to baptize the children first because “The men are all out in the field, Padre.” But Father Vaillant insists that “A man can stop work to be married” and explains “the marriages first, the baptisms afterward; that order is but Christian.”
In these various ways, the two priests enrich the daily lives of the people they serve, instructing them in skills that produce health, teaching them the arts of growing of fruit, the planting of orchards, and French cooking. They introduce salads, soups, leeks, and olive oil that are absent in the Mexican diet. Bishop Latour writes in a letter to France, “We have no green vegetables here in winter, and no one seems ever to have heard of the blessed plant, the lettuce.” Father Vaillant too complains that he lacks the basic ingredients for hearty, zesty French soups, asking “but how can a man make a proper soup without leeks, that king of vegetables?” He urges the importance of planting gardens and recalls with fondness the vineyards he planted previously in Michigan. Both priests define their missionary lives as the sowing of seed that others later harvest, “to plant where another shall reap” as Father Vaillant observes. Later in the novel Bishop Latour instructs the new priests to continue the tradition of the Church he and Father Vaillant have perpetuated: “Wherever there was a French priest, there should be a garden of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers.” The Church, then, produces a harvest of abundance wherever it exerts its influence and performs the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Lives flourish, and men learn to live well rather than simply live.
The Catholic culture the priests bring into the Southwest dispels superstitions and pagan customs that rule the lives of many tribes, especially the unspeakable crime of child sacrifice offered to a great serpent hidden in a cave the natives at Pecos worship: “It was said that they sacrificed young babies to the great snake, and thus diminished their numbers.” These pagan, barbaric practices persist because “their minds will go round and round in the same old ruts till Judgment Day.” Ignorance also prevails among the heretical Mexican priests who reject the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy and identify the Catholic Church in America as autonomous and independent of Rome. As Padre Martinez argues, “We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. . . . Rome has no authority here.” The Mexican priests expect the Church to accommodate the native traditions, the secret dances of the Indians, and the old pagan ways: “The dark things forbidden by your Church are a part of Indian religion,” Padre Martinez argues. Finally, the heretical priests proclaim a schism and create the Holy Catholic Church of Mexico that has no affiliation with Rome. The culture of the Church always advances the cause of knowledge, bringing the light of truth to dispel all the various forms of darkness in the forms of ignorance, superstition, heresy, and. Schism.
Bishop Latour brings the great sacred architecture of the Church to the Southwest by building a Cathedral in the Romanesque style to the glory of God. In his travels the bishop sees a wall of yellow rock that inspires him with the idea of building a church on this elevated site: “That hill, Blanchet, is my Cathedral.” He imagines the church as “the first Romanesque church in the New World” because he wants no ugly church or plain Ohio structure but a masterpiece modeled upon European cathedrals. He even manages to bring expert French stone cutters to complete the work with all their master craftsmanship. Although the Southwest has no cosmopolitan population or wealthy patrons, the bishop does not underestimate the power of great architecture and the beauty of art to elevate the minds of all men to a contemplation of the majesty of God. The bishop brings sacred art to the simple native populations of the region because the Church always patronizes the arts and knows their educational power in leading the mind and soul to a sense of the transcendent. The Church does not regard the appreciation of the beauty of art as the privilege of the learned but as a natural human desire and need that inspires wonder for the grandeur of God and a contemplation of the eternal.
Absent the Church’s influence upon culture, human life remains impoverished on many levels—in mind, body, and soul. Without the active presence and zealous teaching of the Church on all spiritual and moral matters, couples cohabit and deprive themselves of the sanctifying graces of the Sacraments. Without the Church’s role in performing the corporal works of mercy, the ignorant never learn hygiene, eat a healthy, balanced diet, or properly care for the body. Without the Church’s attention to the life of the mind and respect for learning, people live in various forms of ignorance and do not avail themselves of the light of faith that overcomes darkness. And without the Church’s dedication to the glorification of God, human beings lose contact with the arts that transport the soul to the sublime heights of heavenly beatitude. The Church is not simply another human institution but the presence of God in the world, a great teacher, a patron of the arts, a fountain of wisdom, and a healer devoted to the care of the whole person body and soul so that all may not only exist but live abundantly. Christ’s standard that measures goodness—“By their fruits you shall know them”—shows that the Catholic Church’s role in culture amounts to an abundant harvest for all nations in all times and in all places.