Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Greene is not a didactic author. With insight and grace he describes the human condition and human anguish. His whiskey priest, a typical protagonist, is an imperfect soul who accepts and loves God but somehow fails to comprehend his great mercy. Haunted by the sins he has committed, he regards himself as beyond redemption, but in spite of his weaknesses he is essentially a good man, as is the lieutenant. Can there be salvation for such men? Although the question is left hanging, Greene suggests that the answer is yes.
Greene’s fallen world is one that Saint Augustine would recognize. Augustine’s doctrine of humanity, which strongly influenced the early Christian church, is that, through Adam’s sin of disobedience, his descendants are stained by Original Sin and can escape it only by the grace of God. The means of grace are the Sacraments of the Church, regardless of the unworthiness of whoever performs them. In his long dialogue with the lieutenant, the whiskey priest acknowledges the power of the Sacraments as well as the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine of Communion become—in essence, not in appearance—the body and blood of Christ. As an appointed conduit of God’s grace, the priest believes he truly “can put God into a man’s mouth,” no matter what he himself may have done.
The priest blames himself and his own inadequacies for his failures. As soon as he offers his shirt to the shivering...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
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The novel rather obviously develops two themes — the religious theme of faith and devotion, even to the point of martyrdom — and a somewhat Marxist critique of the Church's failure to improve the lot of the poor. The novel seems to side with the Church. However, the novel is more than a convert novelist's own simple-minded faith and devotion to his adopted Church. Greene's religious theme is more complicated than it first appears, and it is apt to be misunderstood by Catholic and secularist alike.
The most salient characteristic of the priest, the hero of the story, is that he is an alcoholic, what his people call "a whisky priest," He has also, in a moment of weakness, fathered a child. He berates himself throughout the novel for being a "bad priest" (in The Heart of the Matter , Greene has a priest say that the expression "bad Catholic" is "about the dumbest expression in common usage"), and he means it. He seriously wonders if he isn't doing more harm than good, if he isn't a scandal to his Church and a bad example for his people. Yet he stays, despite the danger, after all the other priests have left or, as Father Jose has done, denied their vows and taken wives. He stays, because if he were to leave "it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist."
It was not only the whisky priest who worried that he might be a scandal to the Church: The novel was proscribed by the Vatican. Yet, the...
(The entire section is 726 words.)