Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory is believed by some to be his finest work. The book addresses a variety of social, religious and personal issues that lay close to the heart of the author. The Mexican situation and the Catholic faith are for example two prominent issues addressed by the work. Below is then a consideration of the context and inner truths from which Graham Greene created this work.
Roman Catholicism in Mexico
Greene met the woman who would be his wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning while he was working at the Nottingham Journal. While some say that this is his reason for converting to Roman Catholicism, it is obvious that his devotion and affection for this religion later became much deeper than the catalyst for a woman's love. The way in which the protagonist of The Power and the Glory, the priest, is portrayed, is evident of this.
The plight of the priest was both political and personal. He is unable to forgive himself for a brief affair of his past, while his immediate problem entails leaving the Mexican state where all religion has been outlawed. As the only clergyman left, the priest is in the difficult position of conflict between caring for his parishioners and remaining physically out of prison to do so. Thus at the beginning of the novel he is waiting for a ship to transport him. Greene portrays the priest's devotion to his calling in the fact that, time and again, he gives attention to the needs of others above his own. The priest does this to his own mortal peril, as at the end he knowingly enters a trap in order to help a soul in need. In this unselfish quality, Greene demonstrates the ideal of Catholic priesthood.
The priest himself is however deeply aware of his own flawed nature. This element in the book provided a basis for criticism from the clergy in terms of human nature and the negative image of the priesthood. It is however not necessarily true that Greene wished to place the priesthood in a negative light. Indeed, the very flaws within the nature of the priest are what connect him with readers and with the persons he ministers to. These also keep the priest humble throughout the novel, which is another aim of the Catholic and indeed general Christian faith. The priest thus reaches a level of spiritual perfection and influence that he is entirely unaware of for a variety of reasons.
One of these reasons is that he comes into personal contact only with those whom he has wronged. Maria for example blames him for first seducing her and then leaving her, whereas Brigida, his illegitimate daughter, blames him for letting her grow up without a father. He is however unaware of those he touches deeply with both his life and his death. The most prominent examples of these are the boy and Mr. Tench. With his portrayal of the main character as flawed rather than perfect, Greene emphasizes all the more prominently the goodness in him that the priest doesn't see. The priest never turns away from a person in need, even if it does interfere with his own plans to escape, and even if he is aware of the trap being set for him. Despite this, the priest goes to his execution with fear, because he is unable to repent from his indiscretion with Maria. The reason for this unrepentant attitude is also noble: he is unable to repent from something the produced a person he was able to love as much as Brigida. Love is also a Christian quality that the priest has no short supply of.
Despite the fact that he is human, the priest then makes a valiant effort to be as spiritual as possible. Indeed, his awareness of his flawed nature inspires the priest to greater acts of courage and faith than might have been possible otherwise. The focus for the reader is then also that the priest is highly spiritual despite of and perhaps also because of his flaws. He is an example that inspires those he leaves behind to follow in his footsteps. The same is true of the priests who helped bring about political independence in Mexico, who can be seen as background inspiration for Greene's main character. Everything that the priest strives for in the novel is based upon his religious fervor. This can also be seen in the actions of the clergy in bringing about independence in Spain. This episode in the history of Mexico is evidence of persons wishing to bring about the best possible solution for their country, while in effect creating unforeseen disasters.
In Mexico, religion and politics were integrated in that clergymen fought with their countrymen to bring about revolutionary change. Indeed, priests saw this as part of their duty to those depending on them to make life easier. This is the same paradigm that Greene's main character operates from. This, rather than any personal flaws, is what makes him a hero and a martyr in the eyes of those whose lives he touches.
Col. Agustin Iturbide used his alliance with leading clergymen such as bishops and prominent priests in order to unite his troops and convince others to declare independence from Spain in 1820. According to Murray, the motivation for the involvement of religious leaders in this battle was based in the fact that they saw their people's right to practice religion as being threatened by Spain. For Graham's priest, the threat also came from political forces. His attempts to flee were hampered by the need he saw around him. This is the same ideal that the priests in Mexico used as the basis for their fight.
September 27, 1821 saw independence from Spain for Mexico (Murray), but also proved disastrous for the Church. Missionary, educational and social work that were built up at great cost, suffered under the social upheaval brought about by the new independence paradigm. Iturbide, although proclaimed both Emperor and Archbishop Fonte, left for Spain never to return, and left the Mexican Church leaderless for years.
On the surface however, the Church was in a good position, as Catholicism was the only religion to be tolerated in Mexico. Increasing scandals were however created by inside bickering among the clergy, whereas many others abdicated to other religious sects. Other instabilities include the arrival of the Masonic groups that attempted to remove the Church from its position in Mexican life. Politically, parties also attempted a complete separation between Church and state. After 1955 the Church's position came to increasing danger, as the government kept interfering with church matters such as worship and religious freedom. This interference later became full-blown persecution, as further rifts between Church and State became evident. At its worst, this entailed the confiscation of three centuries worth of church-owned treasures by the government. It is with this premise that Greene wrote his novel.
When the above is kept in mind, it becomes clear that the moral indiscretions committed by the main character in the novel is a small matter against the atrocities committed by the government. The priest (in indeed the clergy in general) attempts to do only what he believes is right.
This, rather than his less than admirable actions, is what catches the reader's and the other characters' attention.
Thus, Graham's priest can be seen as representative of the suffering endured by the clergy during these tumultuous times. The mestizo wishing to capture the priest for the reward, and who is portrayed as deceitful throughout the novel, can be seen to represent government authorities of this time, such as Juarez and his colleagues. It is obvious that their repression of the church stems from a motive to gain power and wealth with the least possible effort.
Mexico's stormy history further escalates during the beginning of the 20th century, when Catholics are oppressed to the extent where it is completely forbidden to practice Catholicism, to wear ecclesiastical robes, or to give religious instruction in schools. Further martyrs and government officials rose who could be seen as representative of the characters in Greene's novel.
The 1917 Constitution in Mexico provided for fewer and fewer manifestations of the Catholic religion in Mexico. It was an active repression of religion. Public worship and proclamation of the Catholic faith was for example not allowed. It was the beginning of this regime that Greene portrayed in his novel.
The clever tactics of Alvaro Obreg n, president of Mexico between 1920-24, ensured that Catholic revolt came only later. This president enforced anti-Catholic measures religiously in areas where Catholic sentiment was weak, and less strongly in areas where the sentiment was more pronounced (Tuck). Priests such as Greene's main character were therefore forced to move to areas where the sentiment was not as harshly enforced in order to escape persecution. Plutarco El'as Calles, succeeding the former president, brought about much more harsh measures. Priests…