Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
Graham Greene, baptized an Anglican, became an atheist at Oxford University and converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-one. He preferred to say he was not a Catholic novelist but rather a novelist who happened to be Catholic; nevertheless, his faith informed his work. As a journalist, he traveled to Mexico to write The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journal (1939), a nonfiction account of religious persecution in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. Antireligious laws were most severe in Tabasco, where all Catholic churches were destroyed and the celebration of Mass, confession, and rites for the dying were forbidden. The governor decreed that all priests must leave the state, marry, or be shot. There, Greene encountered stories of the hunted, alcoholic priest who became his protagonist in The Power and the Glory.
Greene’s “whiskey priest” is a questionable hero. He has evaded the authorities for ten years, yet he still feels a pastoral duty: Without him, the people cannot receive God through the sacrament of Communion. Fear dominates his life. A small man, he dreads pain; only brandy can give him courage when necessary. He has sinned, for in a moment of loneliness he has fathered a child. He knows he is unworthy of the priesthood but cannot abandon those who need him, even though he wants to—unlike Padre José, a disgraced old priest who chose to marry his housekeeper rather than die and who faces continual humiliation.
The whiskey priest’s pursuer is an ascetic police lieutenant, a priest of the new order, whose real life began with the socialist revolution a few years before. He wholeheartedly believes that religion has had a corrupting influence on the lives of his people. Although he has destroyed lives and property for his ideals, he views the world as rational, and his faith lies in the power of a godless state. Ironically, he also seeks another wanted man—a murderer named James Calver.
The priest flees to a banana plantation, then to the poor village where his little daughter Brigida already seems wise beyond her years and on the brink of corruption. He desperately wants to save her but feels helpless when he cannot reach her. She does not, however, betray him to the lieutenant. During his flight the priest acquires an unwelcome companion, a miserable peasant of mixed Spanish and native blood. The mestizo follows him, whining, urging him to rest, offering advice he neither needs nor wants. A disreputable figure with two yellow fangs protruding over his lower lip, the mestizo intends to surrender him for a reward of seven hundred pesos. The two men strive to outwit one another; even so, the priest refuses to confront him and ultimately pities him, realizing that he too is made in the image of God.
A crucial scene occurs when the unrecognized priest, attempting to buy wine necessary to celebrate Mass, is jailed for violating the temperance law. He finds himself in a dark and filthy cell, a sort of underworld, packed in with others whose faces he cannot see. In the blackness he confesses his identity and his sins to fellow prisoners, who sympathize and refuse to expose him to the authorities. When he is released in the morning, the lieutenant, learning he has no money, impulsively gives him a coin for food.
Once the priest is safely across the mountains, he again encounters his Judas. The ragged mestizo appears with a note from the wounded killer Calver, begging the priest to return to hear his confession. This note is part of a trap set by the police, and the priest fully understands he will be going to meet his death. After the lieutenant finally captures him, the two men have a lengthy debate on the philosophical merits of church and state. The lieutenant tells him, “You’re a danger. That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you. . . . It’s your ideas.”
At police headquarters, the priest asks to make his confession to Padre José. Against all his principles, the lieutenant approaches Padre José with the request—for him, an act both of charity and of treason against the government—but the old man, suspecting a trick, refuses. The lieutenant informs the whiskey priest, slipping him a small flask of illegal brandy to steady him before his impending execution. For the lieutenant, a world without the priest seems suddenly empty.