The book of Hebrews (5:1) states that a priest is a man taken from among men to do for them those things that pertain to God. Morte d’Urban describes the fragility of the priest’s human condition in relation to his divine duties. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the American Catholic Church comprised working-class European immigrants or their recent descendants. The parish priest was a figure of totem sanctity and authority. The book evokes another title, the story of the legendary King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), reminding readers of the esteem in which the parish priest was held by his parishioners. However, in the atmosphere of rising prosperity and increasing higher education following World War II, some in the Catholic laity increasingly perceived their priests’ “feet of clay.” It was to this audience that the novels of J. F. Powers appealed, particularly Morte d’Urban, which describes clerical foibles and failures.
The dilemma of the irreligious life of people in religion is a perennial theme in Christian literature. One finds it in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), and Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory (1940). In Morte d’Urban, Powers sets this dilemma within the context of a parochial, materialistic, mid-twentieth century America, applying the satirical style of Sinclair Lewis from works such as Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927).
Father Urban is not as much a religious person as a clerical version of an affable salesman or promoter, somewhat more given to moral rhetoric. However, even this posture arises not from theological principles so much as from his efforts to maintain an agreeable social environment. Spirituality and liturgy are only tangential to his life. His occasional religious thoughts focus mainly on aspects of church history or homely admonitions that he can present more effectively in his preaching. The book’s title ironically recalls that of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which retold the tales of the heroic King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. However, the morte (death) of the title refers not to the death of a hero such as King Arthur but to the desiccated spirituality of an ordinary man.