The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.
Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.
Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.
This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child. In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.
He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.
He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.
The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.
If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.
A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved.