Literature, film and the Catholic church

Ned and I have both recently read Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’. It’s a great book, said to be Greene’s masterpiece and one of President Obama’s favourite books.

Set in 1930s Mexico in the state of Tabasco, the novel takes place during the time of suppression of the Catholic church. In the ’30s there was a backlash against the church and the suppression formed part of the attempt to undo feudal systems left over from colonial times.

In Tabasco the persecution was extreme – churches were closed and destroyed, priests forced to renounce their religion and marry or face criminal charges. Greene traveled through the area at this time and it was whilst in Tabasco he truly found Christianity, he was so affected by the fervent faith of the peasants in the face of persecution.

The story follows the ‘whisky priest’ (whose name is never disclosed) on the run from the authorities and on a personal journey of guilt and discovery. He is a flawed character, grappling with many demons – for example alcoholism, and the fact he has fathered a child. His sense of guilt and capability for self-destruction is mixed with an incredible sense of duty and quest for dignity through his vocation as a priest.

The ‘whisky priest’s’ nemesis is the ‘lieutenant’ who is hunting him. A complicated character also, the lieutenant is a man of iron principles, cold and inhumane in his determination to bring down the church, yet capable of kindness and claims to ‘live for the people’. His hatred of the church comes from socialist principles – he believes that Catholicism is an instrument of oppression and corruption of the poor. He is idealistic and searches for an end to poverty, though ironically through violence and oppression.

The failed priest in the end touches the hearts of many and in his eventual martyrdom he affects profoundly a young boy – proof perhaps, in the end of his ‘holiness’. The priest sacrifices himself for his faith and sense of duty, and finds peace with this resolution of his inner conflicts. The lieutenant achieves his objective, yet is dissatisfied, unhappy and alone.

The book is a roller coaster ride of action and emotions. The characters are brilliant and the subject matter all the more affecting for its historical reality.

I found similarities between the book and ‘Romero’ – a film about Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 to his death in 1980. A conservative man by nature, he became radicalised and spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassination and torture in his country. In 1979 a military government took control of El Salvador and in 1980 Romero was assassinated. Between 1980 and 1992, 70,000 people died in the country’s Civil War.

Romero was radicalised as he faced injustice and atrocities towards the people of his congregation and his friends in the church and in politics. He risked his career, and in the end his life to stand up for what he believed in and to do his duty, as he saw it within the church.

Although Romero is not comparable to Greene’s ‘whisky priest’ in character I think it’s interesting the role that the church plays in the stories. The church has played a controversial role in the development of Latin America – originally an instrument of the Spanish conquest, Catholicism pervades the history and culture. However, there are examples where men and women of the church have stood up against oppression and violence against indigenous, poor and politically outspoken peoples in spite of personal dangers.

Romero is just one example among many. And Greene’s novel also paints the ‘whisky priest’ finally in a good light, despite the lieutenant’s sentiments. As with many things, the institution itself is not always representative of the motivations and capabilities of the people who work within it. I’m not an apologist for Catholicism but it’s easy to be critical of the church. These stories (and others like it) have given me food for thought.

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