Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory (1940) is one of his works that the author himself identified as a Catholic story, and it is clearly concerned with issues of Catholicism in both theory and practice. The novel is set in Mexico in the 1930s at a time when the Church was in conflict with the political powers in Mexico. Greene gives his story an allegorical structure, with the two opposing forces represented by the Whiskey Priest and the Lieutenant of Police, neither of whom is ever named beyond this identification with their jobs and roles in life. The metaphorical framework for the novel evokes images of death, leading ultimately to the death of the priest but also suggesting the death of a corrupt religious order. The novel was deemed anti-Catholic by the Church, which sought to have it banned for a time, though the novel is more critical of the way the Church administers its religion than it is of catholicism in a more general theological sense. The novel is even more critical of the sort of government that believes it can legislate human thought and determine what people can and cannot think and then enforce its will. As the novel shows, such an intention is doomed to failure.
Many critics cite The Power and the Glory as Greene's best novel, and it was certainly the work that first signaled the full development of his great talent. In some ways, he differed from other writers of his time in a way that made him less flashy but more deeply realistic in the tone he set in his works:
Unlike many literary practitioners in this century, he did not experiment with language, subvert traditional narrative, or choose exotic subjects. He simply used the powerful imagination that led him to speak of his work as a "guided dream." That imagination -- fired, at least during the great middle years, by intense moral and religious perception -- made Greene's fiction the best-realized portrayal in its time of the drama of the human soul (Royal 16).
The novel indeed begins with an evocation of death and dying as Mr. Tench goes out into the heat and dust of a Mexican afternoon: "A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference; he wasn't carrion yet" (Greene 715). The whiskey priest also is not carrion yet, but from the first it is evident that his days are numbered and that he lives with a sense of doom. He appears as a vulture hangs in the air above, observing, and presumably waiting for him as well to be carrion. There is a sense of mystery about the priest from the first, emphasized by the fact that he is never named and that he is referred to again and again as the stranger, implying both that he does not belong and that there is something about him that remains always hidden.
The idea of a mystery is carried throughout the novel in several senses. The story has the structure of a mystery story, but it also refers to the "mystery" as found in religion, meaning the contemplation of the ineffable. Greene examines this concept within the structure of a thriller, but it is clear that he has deeper intentions than the writer of a thriller usually would. In this and several other of his novels, Greene analyzes the idea of the spiritual in terms of Catholic thought:
Greene's books were a symptom of Catholic thinking that was increasing in depth, but inevitably his work collided with the pious rigidity inherited from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless his widely read fiction exerted a strong influence.
The "open Church" of the 1960s, with its acceptance of all "men of good will" had in its background the puzzled, slowly comprehending, worldwide Catholic audience on which Greene's themes were working in the 1940s and 1950s. These were the decades when the separatism that had dominated the nineteenth century was surrendering to the older recognition that had begun with such men as Campion and continued with such men as Newman: that there was good in all people. Greene's work was a sign of the accelerated convergence between the Catholic and the non-Catholic worlds. (Kellogg 127).
Of course, the Church itself did not see this sort of future for itself and so challenged writers like Greene for going against the orthodoxy of the time. In 1953, the Catholic Church denounced The Power and the Glory:
While the author's intention had been "to bring out the victory of the power and the glory of the Lord in spite of man's wretchedness," this aim had not been achieved. Rather, "the latter element" -- that is, human wretchedness -- had appeared "to carry the day" in a way that did injury "to certain priestly characters and even to the priesthood itself." Moreover, the novel portrayed a state of affairs so "paradoxical" and "erroneous" that it would disconcert "unenlightened persons" who formed the majority of the readers (Schloesser).
As noted, Greene himself referred to three of his novels as his "Catholic novels": The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair. At the same time, Greene did not like being called a "Catholic novelist," for that restricted him too much. Many Catholic leaders would agree and criticize Greene's catholicism. In 1953, Cardinal Bernard Griffin of Westminster wrote a pastoral letter condemning the three Catholic novels, citing a Vatican official's view of Greene's work. Cardinal Giuseppi Pizzardo condemned The Power and the Glory for being "paradoxical." At some point, Greene met Pope Paul VI, who commented on the cardinal's unfavorable reaction by telling him, "Mr. Greene, some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that" (Sherry).
Greene is not a polemicist for any specific point-of-view, however, and he does not follow any doctrine closely in his novels. In The Power and the Glory, Greene explores conflicts and paradoxes in the Church, in government, and in the soul of the human being. In spite of his role as an allegorical entity, the whiskey priest is not black or white but instead is a fully realized and complex human being, as is the police lieutenant who serves as his opposite. Greene explores his themes in terms of the way human beings act in paradoxical fashion rather than holding to one clear course, and for that matter, he presents the Church in the same light, which may be one reason many in the Church saw him as an enemy. Sherry says of the main character in The Power and the Glory,
Weak and sinful?
alcoholic, the father of a child?
he runs from death, yet serves in doubt. At any juncture he could reveal himself, marry and live safely. He does not, but he is keenly aware that his persistence in secretly administering the sacraments is grudging and less than ideally noble (Sherry).
Sherry further points out that Greene does not present this character in simple terms but instead develops him more fully:
and here is Greene's paradoxical mind at work?
we discern through hints about the priest's past that perhaps, despite his weakness, he is indeed holier than he would have been without persecution, and even without violating his vows. For it is only in those experiences that he has learned how to suffer and to love, respectively. How else can we reach holiness, the novel challenges us to ponder, except from the place where we are? (Sherry).
Greene wrote this novel based on his own experiences in Mexico, experiences he wrote about before in The Lawless Roads in 1939. He then traveled through Tabasco and Chiapas, which were Mexican provinces where the Church was under persecution. Many of the characters and settings in the novel were drawn from this trip. In both books, Greene is interested in the attitude of the Mexican government toward religion. The state was then dedicated to imparting a Socialist education and to eliminating all religious doctrine. Many of the priests were forced either to marry or to accept martyrdom, while a few tried to continue their ministry and remain out of the custody of the police:
In outlawing the influence of the Church and in making any practice of its dogma an act of treason, the government under Garrido Cannibal sought to establish a state that would consider the bodily needs of the people and free them from the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the Roman Catholic Church. It sought to enforce a secular order in place of a religious one. The attempt failed, for the new order could not destroy the forms and symbols of the old (De Vitis 76).
In this novel, Greene shows some of the reasons why this effort was doomed to failure, even as he also shows how certain corrupted elements of the Catholic Church were also doomed in the long run. Even as he celebrates the achievement of the…