In The Power and the Glory, Greene examines the bases of sin and salvation by focusing on the final months in the life of a man who is the last priest still practicing his calling in Mexico. In his treatment of the fugitive, Greene offers two possible views of the protagonist's plight, and he allows his readers to form their own conclusions concerning the priest's fate in eternity.
The first view sees the priest's holiness as almost a truism. The clergyman has lived in the most dire conditions for years in Mexico — half-starved, assaulted by fever and the police — simply to carry out God's will. Even his death is caused by his sense of duty: he could have stayed across the mountains in safety, but he chose instead to administer Last Rites to the dying outlaw, Calver, although he sensed that he would be wasting his time and that the message summoning him was almost assuredly a police trick. We discover, however, that Calver did write the note.
The second view is expressed by the pious woman incarcerated with the priest. She condemns him. In her eyes, the priest is merely a drunk, a lecher, a jester at Church precepts, and, above all, a sinner who will not repent.
The novel alternates between these two positions, focusing on the priest's own ruminations concerning the state of his soul. Greene has chosen a most complex man to carry the burden of his theological ideas. But the priest has the capacity — and the opportunity — to analyze theological problems that have always troubled humankind.
The nameless priest becomes Everyman, picking his way through the labyrinths of Mexico's mountain ranges and swamps in his attempt to do God's will, even though his spiritual situation is unnecessarily complicated by issues that would bother no one but the priest himself.
Greene's priest has a tender conscience and a tendency to see only the evil in his actions and to exaggerate his blemishes. To such a man, virtues become vices and, added to valid guilt, they almost overpower him. Greene's priest, however, does have reason to repent. He was pompous in the early days of his priesthood; he subjugated emotions and concern for others to intellectual gymnastics; he did commit adultery; and he does drink far too much and might well be an alcoholic.
But his imagined crimes, he feels, are much worse. He feels guilty because he loves the offspring of his sin, Brigitta; he suspects that his refusal to leave Mexico stems merely from pride; he broods over taking a lump of sugar from a dead child and snatching a bone from a dying dog -even though he himself is starving. He concerns himself unduly for enjoying a few days of rest at the Lehrs' home, and while there, he is immediately conscious of his tendency to return to his old, stilted ways, so sensitized is his conscience to any possible rumblings of sin.
The priest, then, is a fully drawn character; but he is also a spokesman for Greene's view of the continuity of the Catholic Church. As a sensitive and thoughtful person, the protagonist is scarcely expendable; yet he is only a small part of a large spiritual organization — the Roman Catholic Church. In his debate with the lieutenant, the priest states that the totalitarian state is based upon personalities. When its leaders die, he says, the government will probably fall, consumed by corruption. The Church, he argues, does not depend on any one person, and the appearance of the new priest at the end of the novel manifests Greene's thesis.
But even the Church must work through people, and the novel traces the protagonist's growing awareness of the need for compassion and acceptance of the faults of others. Without charity (benevolence and loving forbearance), the Church would be as cold and as brittle as the totalitarian state. The lieutenant can erase caricatures from the walls that might ridicule the government, but the Church must be more tolerant, while all the time retaining its sanctifying missions. Starting with his dreadful night in the jail cell and ending with his kindness to the half-caste as they approach Calver, the priest's quest has been an effort to become totally human.