The conflict between the novel’s two main characters, the “whisky priest” and the lieutenant, parallels the tension between the novel’s two overlapping themes-the spiritual theme of religious faith and devotion, and the political theme of the Church’s obligation to aid the poor. Although Greene seems to sympathize with the priest, and thus with the belief that the Church’s primary obligation to the poor is spiritual rather than political or economic, his novel is more than a simple-minded tale of faith and devotion.
Greene never names the priest, referring to him only as the “whisky priest.” In addition to being an alcoholic, the priest has fathered a child and thus has sinned in the eyes of the Church. He berates himself throughout the novel for being a “bad priest” and wonders if he is doing more harm than good by setting a bad example for his people. Yet he continues the work of the Church, even after all the other priests have gone into hiding or denied their faith and taken wives. Although he is an unlikely representative of God, the whisky priest says he stays in the region because if he were to leave “it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist.”
Greene’s choice of a whisky priest as hero underscores the novel’s theme. The sacraments this priest administers are, according to Catholic teachings, as valid as those administered by the holiest of saints. When the priest is finally captured, he and the lieutenant discuss their differing beliefs, and the priest maintains: It’s no good your working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward-and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same-and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.
Greene suggests that the priest’s belief in God’s pardon-and in his own power to grant God’s pardon through the sacrament of penance-enables him to feel compassion for others even when they seem less than virtuous. During the sacrament, a person can envision the image of Christ in the priest even though he knows the priest to be an alcoholic and a fornicator. In the same way, the whisky priest learns to see the image of Christ in others: When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity-that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of the imagination.
The priest considers the lieutenant a better man than himself, but the novel suggests that what matters is a certain kind of compassion sustained by understanding the holiness in everyone.
The lieutenant thinks of himself as a compassionate man driven by a desire to empower the poor and oppressed of his country. He views the Church as an instrument of oppression and feels physically repulsed when he recalls “the smell of incense in the churches of his boyhood” and “the immense demands made from the altar steps by men who didn’t know the meaning of sacrifice.” To the lieutenant, all priests are the same-fat, pampered men who squeeze money and mortification out of tired, suppliant peasants. The lieutenant, like the whisky priest, feels he has a vocation to save these peasants, but where the whisky priest offers spiritual salvation, the lieutenant demands social and economic redemption. The two characters seem to oppose each other in belief, method, and even appearance: where the whisky priest is round-faced, unkempt, and prone to nervous, drunken giggles, the lieutenant, in his polished uniform, is distinguished by his curt manner and “lean dancer’s face.” Yet the lieutenant, compared at times to a priest, a theologian, and a monk, ultimately discovers that he and the whisky priest share similar goals.
The novel is in many ways a parable about theological principles, a retelling of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion; most of the other characters seem motivated by the functional needs of the story. The poor mestizo who betrays the priest is a Judas figure, and the American bank robber and murderer is symbolically Barabbas for Greene’s passion play. Like the whisky priest and the lieutenant, these characters remain nameless: the poor mestizo is referred to as “the half-caste,” and the American is simply called “the Gringo.” Although in his other novels Greene draws fully founded characters, here he creates characters who serve as symbols or mouthpieces for ideologies.