The Power and the Glory

by Graham Greene
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Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

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.

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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.

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The priest blames himself and his own inadequacies for his failures. As soon as he offers his shirt to the shivering mestizo, he regards the act as a sin of pride. He has violated his vow of chastity; he lies; he is an alcoholic; he is tempted into deceit. He recognizes his own fallen nature in his daughter, but he is unable to repent of her conception: “What was the good of confession when you loved the result of your crime?” He cannot regret that she exists, whom he loves most intensely but fears he cannot save.

The priest feels alienated from God and knows he deserves damnation. He cannot even make a good act of contrition, because he has forgotten the words of the prayer, perhaps from terror. He is willing, however, to sacrifice himself for others, praying that God will save his daughter in exchange for his own death. He becomes Christlike when he returns to absolve the dying criminal Calver, in effect giving up his own life for another man’s chance at eternal life. The lieutenant calls him a martyr, but the priest rejects the title because he thinks martyrs have no fear.

Greene, however, seems to endorse the idea that God allows evil to exist in the world to give fallen human beings an opportunity to rise above it. Although the whiskey priest lives in a state of mortal sin and dies unshriven, one sees his imprint on those he leaves behind. He inspires others to emulate him in his kindness and courage—for he is brave, in spite of himself. His deeds of compassion and charity appear to outweigh his human weakness and to suggest that a loving God will forgive and understand.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

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 [1948], 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 weakness of this priest was not meant for shock value, even though Greene has expressed a strong distaste for — and willingness to offend — what he calls "traditional piety." They are essential to the themes of the novel. (At least one Catholic reader apparently saw the point. According to Greene, Pope Paul VI, on hearing that the book, which he had read, had been condemned by the Holy Office, replied: "Mr. Greene, some parts of your books are bound to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.") The sacraments this "bad priest" administers are, as every Catholic is taught, as valid as if they were administered by the holiest of saints. This position of the Church was established to combat the Donatist heresy in the fourth century, and Greene is not attempting to break new theological ground. Greene does, however, apply this old theologiTJie Power and the Glory cal position to the political theme of the book. When the priest is finally captured, he and the lieutenant have what must be considered, under the circumstance, a very cordial debate, and the priest maintains, "It's no good you working for your end unless you're a good man yourself. And there won't always be good men in your party. Then you'll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn't matter so much my being a coward — and all the rest. I can put God into a man's mouth just the same — and I can give him God's pardon. It wouldn't make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me."

The priest's argument is not, of course, necessarily conclusive — not all readers will accept a belief in God's pardon or a priest's power to give it. Yet, his belief offers a way to sustain compassion even when people are not "good." A person can "imagine" — see the image of Christ in the priest during the sacrament — even when he knows the priest in his private life is an alcoholic and a fornicator, just as the whisky priest learns to see the image of Christ in his fellow jail-mates: "When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality God's image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of the imagination." Perhaps the lieutenant is a better man than the priest — the priest certainly thinks he is — but the novel seems to suggest that what matters is a certain kind of compassion, a compassion sustained not so much by the "goodness" of people as by a certain use of the imagination.

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