God and Greene

The Power and the Glory

Original Title: The Labyrinthine Ways

By Graham Greene

Published by The Viking Press

Copyright: © 1968

Original Copyright © 1940

Graham Greene traveled to the back water, impoverished central Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 1937 to research religious, anti-Catholic persecution by the country’s political rulers, army, and police. Repellent politics and dysentery almost sent him packing for his native England, but a tawdry, although meritorious, liable suit being litigated in the British courts between the then precocious child star, Shirley Temple, and Greene over his ill-advised movie review of the star, promised him plenty of scorn, justified mockery, and a room at a London gaol if he went back home. He chose to keep digging for local color and background in Mexico over the less inflammatory subject of religious bigotry.

Since the days of Mexican independence in 1810, anti-clericalism, anti-Catholicism has lurked around every bell tower and dusty church courtyard in the country. Challenges to the Church’s authority became constant as time progressed. Politicians with few opportunities to fleece the ubiquitous poor were envious of its land holdings and material wealth. And predictably the Church could be counted on to be its own worst enemy.

In 1913, Victoriano Huerta seized the presidency in a bloody coup that deepened the ongoing revolution and rebellion led by Emilio Zapata. Huerta’s ruthless tactics in suppressing Zapata’s rebellion were not popular and he had few friends within or outside of Mexico, but the Catholic Church supported him. In 1914 Huerta through the loss of support fled the country and died in an U.S. Army jail in 1916.

Graham Green in 1975

After the revolution, a new Mexican constitution was approved in 1917 that included the anti-Catholic Article 130 which codified that the church, and the state were to remain separate. It obligated state registration of all churches and religious groupings along with restrictions on all priests and ministers. The restrictions prohibited priests and ministers from holding public office, campaigning on the behalf of political parties or candidates, and they could not criticize government officials.

A few years later in 1924 a new president of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, sanctioned through executive decree strict and absolute enforcement of Article 130 which became known as Calles’ Law in 1926 or the “Law for Reforming the Penal Code”. Calles’ Law provided specific penalties for priests who violated Article 130. A priest wearing clerical dress outside of a church was to be fined five hundred pesos, a huge sum that a priest was unlikely to have the means to pay. Criticizing a government official was penalized with a 5-year prison term. Most states chose not to see the priests’ transgressions, and the citizens chose not to speak of priestly trespasses of Calles’ Law. The state of Tabasco though chose law, and lucre, over morality, enforcing the decree with a lustful zeal, adding further insult by requiring priests to marry.

Calles’ Law initiated almost immediately the Cristero War, hostilities starting in 1926 and ending in 1929 with an U.S. brokered peace between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, although the government continued to prosecute the war well into the 1930s, murdering an additional 5-6000 Cristero soldiers and leaders after the official end of hostilities. The law and the war reduced the number of practicing priests by over 90 percent with only 335 priests, forty believed to have been killed, remaining to administer to fifteen million people, with more than 70 percent being Catholic. It is believed that 5 percent of the population fled to the United States, during and immediately following the war.

Sinners abound in “The Power and the Glory”. The protagonist and anti-hero, an unnamed whiskey priest sinner looking for redemption. An antagonist and foil, a policeman sinner seeking social justice where the ends justify the means. A contagonist, a half-Indian peasant sinner seeking acceptance and awards. Numerous sidekicks who are all sinners, venial sinners but still sinners, all seeking a life that is less hard, less exhausting.

A temptress and confidant who is not a sinner, but the protagonist’s conscience and salvation. A temptress and confidant guiding the whiskey priest, forgiving him his follies, moving him slowly to accept his fate, his calling, to be a man of God for God.

Graham Green was a nominal Catholic, an agnostic Catholic was his term, when he set out to write this book, but his interactions with the simple and God loving peasants of Tabasco brought him to an understanding with Christianity. An understanding towards a belief and faith in someone more powerful and glorified than oneself.

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