A Doubtful Martyr:
A Review of
The Power and the Glory
By Gabriel Blanchard
Faith and doubt are usually thought of as opposites. But what if faith and doubt were intertwined in a single heart?
Graham Greene was one of the most eminent British novelists of the twentieth century, producing a wide range of books, from spy thrillers like The Ministry of Fear to dark comedies like Our Man in Havana to sober, introspective works like The End of the Affair. Originally an atheist, he converted to Catholicism in 1926, and spent most of his life and much of his writing exploring the tension between personal doubts and imperfections and the edifice of Catholic belief. Nowhere is this more evident than his most celebrated novel, The Power and the Glory.
After the Cristero Rebellion of the late 1920s, the Soviet-aligned Mexican government implemented severe restrictions on the practice of Catholicism. In many places these went unenforced, but in some states, the Church was suppressed with great thoroughness and violence; by the early ’30s, there were barely more than three hundred priests in a nation of fifteen million.
It is against this backdrop that Greene presents us with his hero: an unnamed priest who has refused to apostatize and gone into hiding, but keeps ministering in secret. He travels by night from town to town, hearing Confessions and saying Mass. A police lieutenant and convinced Communist pursues him, determined to execute him and thus exterminate the last traces of religion from the state.
The prose of the book is incomparable. While the pacing is a little slow, this suits the story well: the long, hot, exhausting hours (light and dark alike) of southern Mexico through which the characters move are almost physically perceptible, answered by circling thoughts that repeat themselves, illustrating the trap of circumstance the priest feels himself caught in. A handful of recurring side characters—here a stranded English dentist, there a pious mother reading her children a sentimental tale about a martyr—broaden the world of the book, while also helping, with their own small changes, to give direction to the slow march of the priest on his personal via dolorosa.
In the priest, a more ingenuous author might have given us a portrait of a saint as we expect it: courageous, pure of heart, self-sacrificing, and firm in his faith. The hero of The Power and the Glory is none of these things, or at any rate not decisively so. The heroic qualities actually exist in the character of the lieutenant: his faith in his communist ideals is unwavering, and his personal conduct is generous, incorrupt, temperate, and even chaste. By contrast, the priest is a raging alcoholic (Greene himself coined the expression “whiskey priest”) who has fathered a child with his housekeeper, and is constantly questioning his mission and looking for ways to escape into safer territory. The priest’s doubts about his worthiness are amply supported by the narrative, which exposes his rationalizations, resentments, and hypocrisies—and yet the reader cannot help noticing at the same time that the priest is honest, wise, and merciful to the faults of others. The priest’s persistence in faith and ministry in the midst of doubts is, to many readers, more relatable and far more inspiring than a conventional hero would be. The priest even sympathizes with the lieutenant who is pursuing him to kill him, calling him a good man and forgiving him. Years of deprivation and fear and unabsolved sinfulness have worn down his ego, making him a mysterious vessel of grace.
The novel and its paradoxes shocked many Catholics when it was first published in 1940. It was even condemned by the Holy Office, but no action was taken against Greene, and when they met in 1965, Pope Paul VI personally assured him that “some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.” Fellow authors like Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, and John Updike defended The Power and the Glory as Greene’s masterpiece, and it remains his most recognized work to this day.
If you liked this review, you might also enjoy this review of Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel Gaudy Night by Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, this “Great Conversation” post on the concept of theology, or our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.