Graham Greene, leading Catholic novelist of the English-speaking world, is an artist provocative and provoking in his apologetics. The Power and the Glory is one of his best novels. Although first published in 1940 (as The Labyrinthine Ways), it still finds a ready market and is widely discussed. Protestant theologians who turn their attention to the modern novelist discover in Greene’s work a vivid story of the paradox of grace (cf. R.W.B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint, 1959; Horton Davies, A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels, 1959; Gabriel Vahanian. The Death of God, 1961). The novel raises certain crucial problems concerning the dimensions of power—the causes of the Mexican persecution in relation to the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church.

Power and Glory of Simplicity

Greene picked up the incident for The Power and the Glory when he traveled in Mexico in the 1930s. He recorded impressions in The Lawless Roads (1939). He mentions a solitary priest fleeing from persecution in the southern state of Tabasco. As he trod the “labyrinthine ways” of Mexico in revolution, Greene found Tabasco a “godless state” void of “forgiveness.”

With this setting in mind, he wrote a poignant tale. The reader may taste, feel, and smell the dusty, dank, dreary Mexican southland. Because of the “obscure, personal neurosis” of Tabasco’s governor, the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church was especially severe. The governor ordered all priests to leave his jurisdiction or face extinction. The chief character of Greene’s tale is a nameless priest, anonymous except as a sometime drunkard who sired a bastard child, who defies the governor in spite of his drive for self-preservation. He is haunted by the compulsion to fulfill the priestly function as long as there are faithful who call for those sacramental services which he alone can perform. He is hounded by the state, represented particularly by a lieutenant who turns gradually in some sympathy toward the creature he must exterminate. Finally, the priest is betrayed by his “Judas”—a corrupt Catholic peasant out for a peso—when he abandons an opportunity to flee in order to administer rites to a dying gringo, a criminal wounded by the authorities. After execution, the cleric crumbles, a “routine heap beside the wall—something unimportant which had to be cleared away.” He himself denies his martyrdom; Greene, however, contrives this possibility by skillfully weaving into the drama of the chase a quiet bedtime story about a Mexican martyr-priest read by a Catholic mother to her children. While it might be too much to see in the priest a Christ-figure, he appears compassionate in his remorse and as one of those “least” mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel who are fed when hungry, refreshed when thirsty, clothed when naked, nursed when sick, visited when in prison—a benediction to those who minister to him.

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So potent is Greene’s writing that it may appear insensitive to descend from the near poetry of his prose to consider political and theological problems. But while the novel is a work of art, it is no less a work of subtle propaganda. Those sharing some of Greene’s presuppositions see God, whose glory human contrivance cannot diminish, which may be expressed through the meanness of this earthly vessel. These are those impressed by the heroism of a man who insists upon doing his duty as he sees it in the face of overwhelming odds. Preoccupation with such glory clouds certain aspects of power.

About Possessions and Priests

Greene creates the impression that the machinery of a “godless” state has conspired to crush this wretched, insignificant cleric. By setting his scene in Tabasco, governed as it was by a neurotic, he tends to obscure the problem of persecution of the Roman Catholic Church which was, while not so relentless, Mexico-wide during the 1920s and 1930s.

Persecution was a delayed reaction. The revolutions of 1910 and 1917 were marked by an anti-clericalism which produced some of the harshest constitutional provisions against the church in contemporary political history, e.g., nationalization of property, limitations on the number of priests, strict regulation of ecclesiastical activities. Persecution does not arise in vacuo. The padre of this novel is not persecuted because he is a whiskey priest with a bastard child, the sins which are a personal burden to him. His crime was one of association with power representing the chief vested interest of his country. Since the conquest of Mexico in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and at least until the 1930s (in spite of the challenges of the nineteenth century), the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful force with continuity of existence in the life of the Mexican people. It was intimately linked with Spanish imperialism, coveting always to preserve and protect patronato and fueros. Through the centuries the church accumulated vast wealth; no one is certain of its extent. According to Columbia University’s Frank Tannenbaum, a conservative Catholic historian has estimated that toward the end of the colonial period it owned not less than half of the real property and capital of the country, and manipulated the rest through its banking interests. Greene’s nameless priest may be contrasted with the hero priests of Mexico whose names are known and revered. Hidalgo and Morelos were nineteenth-century prophets from village traditions who led movements against the old order. These priests were so daring in their declaration of independence against Spanish exploitation that they were excommunicated by the church and executed by the civil power. Political upheaval always threatened economic stability, thereby threatening one aspect of ecclesiastical power. The church found itself on the side of reaction when revolutionaries sought a new deal of Mexican resources for the common good. Centuries of frustration meant the storing of wrath. In the twentieth century, fury was all the more ravaging because those who sought revenge could not reach back into the past to punish the dead.

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Greene shows keen insight by allowing the lieutenant to represent a political rather than an economic bourgeoisie, and by implying the faithfulness of Mexicans in Tabasco. It is also true, however, that the revolutionary dictator, Calles, found it possible because of public support or acquiescence to enforce the restrictions of the 1917 constitution upon the church beginning in the 1920s. Greene’s own comment in his 1939 travelogue about the dim promise of revolution may give insight into the church’s approach to the situation. “Even if it were all untrue and there were no God,” he mused in The Lawless Roads, “surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfillment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture.” For Christians the promise of God about future life overcomes the meanness of this existence, from the stink of the diaper to the stench of the shroud. But power in the presence of Lazarus should not employ this incentive as apology for wealth and for injustice. The lieutenant lays the blame for oppression upon the church itself. It stifled change commensurate to the economic needs of Mexicans. “The Church was poor, the priest was poor,” he remarks about the stance of the church through the years; “therefore everyone should sell all and give to the Church.” The priest responds meekly to his captor and accuser: “You are so right,” and then quickly, “Wrong, too, of course.” In spite of a disclaimer to the contrary, life does “contain churches.” It is this “right” and “wrong” about the relation of the church to the revolution which does not come through in Greene’s treatment of the priest’s tribulation. The church claimed to have a program of social betterment of its own. It could not cover inactivity in reform nor aversion to the whole revolutionary movement because of its supposed “godlessness.”

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No priest can be made to bear the corporate guilt of an ecclesiastical institution. But the reason for the relentless persecution of this priest in The Power and the Glory may not be apprehended fully without recognition of his inescapable association with the most reactionary force in Mexico. Mexicans were bent on revolution, not abortive rebellion, to employ Camus’ distinction. Any drive for justice involved, among other matters, a decisive challenge of the power of the church. Perhaps Greene wanted to say that the church must become harassed, as was the priest of his novel, in order once again to be the church. If he meant to say this, he said it, in spite of his realism, with too many smooth pebbles in his mouth.

About Sacraments and Sinners

The power of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico never rested solely upon possessions of this world. Graphically, Greene’s tale asserts the churchly power by divine right to infuse into the believer the privilege of grace through a sacramental system. Discussion of this “hobo priest,” as one critic labeled him, would be incomplete without analysis of the power which accompanies the “keys” of the kingdom of God. Obviousness threatens to obscure the problem.

Contemplating his situation the priest reflects: “When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay.…” By raising such a question, Greene explores the significance of the Roman Catholic system of sacramental grace. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the channel through which God’s grace is conveyed to believers from birth to death, even into the life beyond. Catholic life is regulated minutely through the use of sacraments—baptism, confirmation, penance, communion, marriage, extreme unction. Above all in order of significance is a seventh sacrament—ordination of the priest with a character indelebilis as the intermediary interposed between God and the individual. By definition, the administrations of the priest who bears his ordination as a “birthmark” are efficacious, ex opere operato, in spite of the condition of the administrant and provided the participant does not place any obstacle in the way. Moreover, the system presided over by the priest is de necessitate salutis—necessary for salvation. The believer must live by the system if the system is to bear the believer. Almost inevitably the system became the sanction by which the church maintained its power over Mexican peasantry.

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Greene weaves this sacramentalism into his novel with consummate skill. All the sacraments are accounted for in some way as the cleric encounters and ministers to characters in the book. It would be erroneous to suggest that Catholicism ultimately binds God to the operations of a priest—the theological system is too circumspect to allow this. Given the lack of theological astuteness among Mexican priests and peasants, Greene implies that the presence of God actually depended upon the presence of the priest. The priest often administers the sacraments at great personal sacrifice. He lays down his life doing his mediatorial duty. The church was persecuted not because of heroic acts in abnormal situations, but because priests exploited the system in normal times. The priest of the tale is aware of his power. He alone should baptize; he alone can hear confession and pronounce absolution; he alone, considering the importance of the celebration of the Mass, can make God and place God on the lips of Mexicans. He can do all of this in spite of the fact that he is in mortal sin, unable to repent, a “sacrilege” in his own eyes. One of the truly great scenes is that in which he attempts to buy black-market wine necessary for sacramental purposes. He watches “all the hope of the world draining away” as those from whom he makes his purchase wheedle his hospitality and drink his bottle dry. The peasants also know how indispensable his ministrations are. Greene hints at the shape of exploitation when the priest finds himself, catching his breath in flight in the sheltered cove of a community which remained Catholic in spite of a three-year absence of clerics. At the request of the peasants, whose children have gone unbaptized and whose sins are unshriven, the priest prepares for the necessary sacraments. A peasant asks an irrepressible question: “What will you charge, father?” After haggling, the priest charges “one peso fifty” per baptism, five pesos a Mass, for the “enormous supernatural promise” (to employ Greene’s phrase from The Lawless Roads). The peasants “don’t value what they don’t pay for” in spite of their poverty. As the priest calculates his pesos, he falls into his “habit of piety” and assumes the authoritarian “parish intonation” which he practiced before the start of persecution.

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Because he knows Roman Catholicism so well, Greene’s apologetics are forceful; they annoy because he seems incapable of presenting sympathetically the alternatives to his own position. This inability is illustrated when the priest finds temporary hospitality in the home of middle-class Lutherans, prim and proper in a Protestant smugness contrasting with his own misery. During this episode the priest runs across a Gideon Bible, astonished to find “its ugly type and its oversimple explanations” offered as soul-guidance. This skirts on caricature! Toward the end Greene himself seems to make problems simple enough. The lieutenant fails to find a confessor for the condemned priest. He asks if the confessor would make the difference. The priest, who knows he must receive absolution from another priest, hesitates, “Another man … it makes it easier.…” The padre begins his own general confession of sin, abject before God toward whom he looks for forgiveness. In bringing the haunted and hounded priest to this, does Greene intend to discuss an alternative to Roman Catholic sacerdotalism? This is not likely. While the priest’s procedure is theoretically possible under extenuating circumstances, it is the exception rather than the rule. A priest is still the necessity, not a contingent necessity, to the system. Because of its own definition of its relation to the Mexican, the church may have been as responsible as were those who persecuted the church for the seeming godlessness—the great void without forgiveness—which depressed Greene on his Mexican travels.

It is one thing to protect the church from Donatism and to deliver Christians from the dangers of subjectivism through a regulated and restraining system of sacraments. It is quite another thing to say that this is accomplished best in the way in which Roman Catholicism attempts to do it. In Mexico, the system was an occasion for the worse kind of subjectivism, the exploitation of priestly power in the face of the peasant’s ignorant faithfulness. Improper keeping of the “keys” of the Kingdom in Mexico is a key to understanding how God became accessory to the church’s accommodation to this world. When Greene introduces a new priest, mysteriously, almost miraculously, after the execution of his pathetic hero, the reader is forced to ask himself: Is this the author’s proposal for renewal? Is it possible that God may grant grace in another manner? This question is at the “heart of the matter”!

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Not all Mexican revolutionists turned from Christ as they turned from the church. Those who often suspect clerics at least may respect Jesus. Soy católico, pero soy anti-clerical! Jose Orozco, rabid and rigid anti-clerical, painted the famous frescoes about the larger aspirations of western-hemisphere man at Dartmouth College in the 1930s. In one of the panels he shows a militant Christ-figure, symbol of an aroused and aggressive spirituality, with ax in hand, a cross at his feet. He stands against a junk heap of religious symbols. To be sure, Quetzalcoatl and not Christ seems to be the hero of the Mexican muralist. But artist Orozco breathes the spirit of prophets who know and warn that God may find man’s sacrifice to him an abomination. He may hate, all the more, the manipulation of Christ’s sacrifice as an instrument of any institutional power.

It is not enough to deal with Greene’s tale in terms of an anonymous priest whose plight exposes desperate human inadequacy, or to see, as Mauriac would have us see, the “utilization of sin by grace” (Francois Mauriac, Men I Hold Great, 1951). Grace may abound! God may turn sin to his own glory! But neither the Christian nor the church should sin that grace may abound. Certainly brutality may not be justified in the name and for the sake of any revolutionary ideology. At the time of Greene’s Mexican visit, revolutionists—for all of their pretensions about purposes and projects for justice—had enough of an ecclesiastical institution, centuries old, centuries rich, whose priests sanctified through a sacramental system exploitation of the dispossessed.


Department of Church History

Union Theological Seminary

Richmond, Virginia

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