The priest in The Power and the Glory finds his plans for escape foiled on several occasions because he feels that it is his responsibility to perform certain functions. Several times, for instance, he is asked to put his flight on hold because people need him to stay with them and hear their confessions. According to Catholic doctrine, Jesus conferred upon his disciples the power to forgive sins that were committed after baptism under certain conditions, and the same power was passed on to all ordained priests. In the sacrament of penance, a sinner who says confession to a priest and performs the penance that the priest assigns can be absolved of her or his sins. The importance of having sins absolved through this sacrament is shown in the novel when the priest knowingly walks into a trap set by the police because he is required by his oath to hear the confession of the American gangster, James Carver, who has expressed the desire to confess; under other circumstances a person might ignores such a request, coming from a criminal, and say that he deserves whatever fate awaits him, but the truly devoted Catholic priest cannot turn his back on such a request.
Another church doctrine that complicates the priest’s escape from the authorities is the necessity for grape wine in performing the sacrament of Holy Communion. In this sacrament, bread and wine are blessed and thereafter stand for the body and blood of Jesus. When he can find none of the unleavened wafers traditionally used for Holy Communion while saying Mass, the priest is able to substitute bread from Maria’s oven, but church doctrine requires him to use grape wine. This is why Maria pours out the wine he has left, because a man caught in possession of wine will easily be recognized as a priest. It is also why the priest puts himself in danger in the capital: his pretense of having a thirst that will not be quenched by wine made from quinces or by brandy does not fool the governor’s cousin or the chief of police, and so they prevent him from taking the wine with him to someplace where he could use it for Communion.
In the end, the priest’s moral position is balanced in this novel by the secular morality of the lieutenant who is charged with capturing him. Greene establishes that the lieutenant is a decent man when, faced with a penniless beggar, he takes money from his own pocket to help the man. Although he could present this agent of the law as being heartless or evil, Greene instead makes it clear that he does care about the poor people he watches over. The lieutenant is frustrated; he knows that the peasants are helping the priest in his escape, and he cannot understand why they would choose to side with the church when, in his view, it is the government that really looks after the interests of the poor.
To the revolutionaries who fought against the status quo in Mexico in the 1910s and 1920s, the church was considered a tool for keeping the poor oppressed. As the lieutenant points out, the promise of a better life in the afterworld can be used to make people accept suffering in this world. The lieutenant’s skepticism is confirmed in the novel, to some degree, when the priest considers how much he should charge for saying Mass and performing baptisms: he tells himself that it would be better for the peasants to pay more than they think they can afford, to make them suffer for it and therefore appreciate the sacraments more, but it is clear that he is also driven by thoughts of how much he stands to profit. In the priest’s greed, Greene tacitly shows how the church could actually have a hand in keeping the poor of the country oppressed.
The protagonist of this novel is a priest, but he is clearly not free of sin. He has allowed his addiction to alcohol to become so powerful that his drunkenness is obvious, and people refer to him as a ‘‘whiskey priest,’’ a condition so common that a phrase has been coined for it. Even worse than his drinking is that he has given in to lust and fathered a child. The priest is well aware of his moral shortcomings, his human frailties; he does not feel that he is a pious man, even though he risks his life several times to give religious comfort to those who need it. Faced with death, he is anxious to have his sins absolved through confession.
Greene shows moral ambiguity in several other characters as well. Padre Jose´, the priest who broke his vow of celibacy by marrying his housekeeper, earned the acceptance of the government, but he suffers from a guilty conscience, which is brought to life in the novel by the taunts of the children outside his gate. The American gangster is reputed to be a thief and a murderer and clearly commits a venial sin by holding a young Indian boy to shield himself from the policemen’s bullets, but he does show remorse, asking for a priest to hear his confession, and when he realizes that he is being used as a trap he does what he can to chase the priest away. Even the lieutenant who is killing innocent hostages in order to bring the priest out into the open is not simply the sinner that circumstances seem to imply: not only does he give money to a poor man whom the legal system abuses but he sees the goodness in the priest after they have had a chance to talk. He follows his duty to the law, but is also willing to bend the law to bring him a bottle of brandy or a priest to hear his confession.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Graham Greene, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.