Continuing our three-part series on Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, we take a look at the paradoxical power of simul iustus et peccator in the nature of the whisky priest, the catholicity of the human experience, and the disarmament of piety in the name of love. For Part One, click here.

A priest passed to and fro before the altar saying Mass, but he took no notice: the service no longer seemed to concern him…someone out of sight rang the sanctus bell, and the serving priest knelt before he raise the Host. But he sat on, just waiting, paying no attention to the God over the altar, as though that were a God for other people and not for him. Then the glass by the plate began to fill with wine, and looking up he saw that the child from the banana station was serving him. She said, ‘I got it from my father’s room.’

The main character is a nameless ‘whisky priest,’ (misspelling intentional) a man ordained for the office of the Lord but out of work, on the run, and always thirsty. He has given Mass only a few times in the past six years. He enters towns as a fugitive to closed doors. He has fornicated and bastardized his child. He is a self-proclaimed drunkard and failure, by will and vocation. What, then, does he represent as the last priest in town, the only one left? Is Greene decrying the acclimatization of the Church? Is he killing the final priest so that some form of universal love can kind of amoebically fuse back into churchless humanity?

I think no and yes. Greene is using the whisky priest to envision a priesthood, a world of faithful ministry, without distinction from the world around it. It does not mean that the priest’s offerings are not unique and life-giving in particular ways; it does mean that the provider of said offerings is someone no less constrained by the depravity of the world. The whisky priest, definitively speaking, is an image of simul iustus et peccator: simultaneously justified and sinful. A holy man, a coward. A priest, a drunk. His congregation is the prison:

Everybody, when he spoke, listened attentively to him as if he were addressing them in church…He was moved by an irrational affection for the inhabitants of the prison…He said, ‘My children, you must never think the holy martyrs are like me. You have a name for me. Oh, I’ve heard you use it before now. I am a whisky priest. I am in here now because they found a bottle of brandy in my pocket.’

This priesthood is a supping in the darkness of human despair. It finds no distinction between oneself and the world around it—the only distinction is the distinction of what he carries, the Wine of God, the Forgiveness of Sins. It is interesting, then, to see the holy sacraments of the Catholic church get stripped away as he gets closer and closer to his death. His Latin Bible is left at the dentist’s house, the priestly garb is exchanged, he loses his communion box, the wine he purchases with all the money he has left is gone by night’s end—and it seems that only when these things have been taken does his true ministry begin. Only when the trappings of “piety” have been taken does the simplicity of faith and forgiveness come forth to his new communicants.

He couldn’t even say Mass any longer—he had no wine. It had gone down the dry gullet of the Chief of Police. It was appallingly complicated. He was still afraid of death, he would be more afraid of death yet when the morning came, but it was beginning to attract him by its simplicity.

Though the whisky priest is in a perpetually fluctuating state of self-despair at the state of his own soul, the notions of piety—of the cross-armed refusal to partake in one’s communion with the world—take foreground over the “mortal sins” of corruption. Piety, the nameless woman in the prison cell who refuses to accept any likeness to the ‘criminals’ around her, is Greene’s evoking of the older brother in the parable of the lost son. She defies her part in the prisoner’s banquet, keeping a ways off in her self-appointed hell. She remains alone. It is no coincidence that the next day she leaves the prison, like one paradoxically damned: “He watched the pious woman go off through the archway to where her sister waited with the fine; they were both tied up in black shawls like things bought in the market, things hard and dry and second-hand.”

Piety as hell, it seems to Greene, is human self-sufficiency: the complacency that says No to the eternal Yes of the Gospel, who choose not to partake in the mutual prisonhood of simul iustus et peccator, simply because there is no peccator in them at all. It is a satisfaction in the pomposity of habit, rather than a weakness in the prison of helplessness. It is a self-satisfaction in the “inessentials,” as Mr. Lehr called them at his luxurious home. This delusional hell keeps them out of the party, the party that is instead for the half-castes and drunkards:

It seemed to him that he was another of the same kind. He drank the brandy down like damnation: men like the half-caste could be saved, salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hands.

It is this very salvation that calls him back from the pious complacency of this old life “hardening round him like a habit, a stony cast,” coming in the form of his Judas. Knowing he is to be led to his death, he goes anyway, leaving the comfort of his hide-out. It could be argued that this is Greene’s proclamation of a Christianity that “gets off the couch,” that “afflicts the comfortable,” that “works to restore all things for the sake of the Kingdom.” Instead, Greene’s priest is waking up to the reality of the left-handed world of love as suffering and death. He wakes up the morning of his capture in the pious Lehr home “with the sense of complete despair that a man might feel finding the only money he possessed was counterfeit.” He leaves the unreality of right-handed profiteering for the reality of left-handed surrender. He is not captivated into the active pursuit of sacrificial love, but is disarmed, and is passively led. Having nothing, he remits, and he follows the road to his Calvary.