Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapter 3
The priest has been arrested, and for awhile, he and the lieutenant must sit alongside Calver's corpse while they wait for a heavy downpour to end. During that time, using a pack of cards that Mr. Lehr gave him, the priest is able to perform the card trick that he has wanted to show to someone throughout the novel — "Fly-away Jack." Then, the priest and the lieutenant touch on a few topical issues, one of which is the protagonist's admission that pride has kept him in Mexico.
After the storm, the soldiers prepare to leave, and the mestizo appears, asking for the priest's blessing. The priest says that he will pray for the half-caste, but that the man cannot be blessed or have his sins forgiven until he returns the reward money (which he received for informing on the priest's whereabouts); if he does that, it will be proof that he is truly contrite.
The men enter the capital city of the province, and the lieutenant promises the priest that he will secure the services of Padre Jose, the married priest, for him, so that he can confess to a priest for the last time. Shortly thereafter, Luis, a boy whom we met earlier in the novel, when his mother was trying to instill in him the virtues of the saint-like young Juan, suddenly appears, admiring the lieutenant who captured the priest, and he asks the lieutenant if he has "got him."
This chapter, then, has a number of major ideas, but its primary focus is on the debate between the lieutenant and the priest, a disputation between, as it were, Caesar and God, or between State and Church. Greene skillfully maintains attention, however, and even suspense, in the midst of abstractions and
esoteric, theological arguments. During the chapter, the priest frequently alienates the lieutenant, just as he has inadvertently done to several of the other characters in the novel. For example, he tells the lieutenant how popular his card tricks were with the Church guilds, forgetting the lieutenant's hatred for such religious organizations. The priest, however, realizes only that he has had virtually no conversation with anyone, except Mexican peasants and Indians, in the past eight years. Therefore, he simply does not know what tone to adopt when speaking to this police official.
As a result, the priest is unable to grasp all that the lieutenant is saying, although Greene does make their debate central to the novel. In addition, he allows the priest's fear of his approaching death, with its possible great pain, to blur and ignore some of the theological subtleties that could have been explored. Realistically, the priest fears the bullets almost as much as a possibly unhappy afterlife, and this very natural reaction — the fear of the impending firing squad — firmly anchors the chapter's thesis in reality and not in mere verbal gymnastics.
Note that when the priest tells the lieutenant that a little pain is nothing to dread, and when the lieutenant points out that his prisoner's hands are trembling, the priest answers that only a saint can weigh this life with its troubles against the next, and that he is not a saint. Greene's central thesis, enunciated by this priest, a man who is not able to practice what he preaches, lends a plausibility to a view that sacramental authority resides in the office — if not primarily in the person. Within the priest rests the power of Rome, even though he himself is, as a man, nameless and a sinner.
Greene also makes concrete the occasional flashes of insight, which reveal the priest's determination not to relinquish even a fragment of his beliefs. The lieutenant tells the priest that, once, he wanted to give "the whole world" to the people of Mexico, to exactly the kind of men whom he was forced to take as hostages because of the priest. The priest answers simply, "Perhaps that's what you did" — that is, perhaps the lieutenant gave the hostages Life Everlasting, which would be, for the priest, "the whole world."
In addition, the lieutenant's reactions also form a solid, realistic base for the debate. Furious at one point that the priest will get his "wish" to die a martyr, he finally realizes, along with the priest, that neither of them is such a bad person after all. In fact, the debate ends by augmenting the lieutenant's humanization; he promises to seek out Padre Jose to hear the priest's last confession.
In this scene, the lieutenant's men also add a measure of reality; in particular, they add a sense of physical place to the debate in the tent as they constantly walk by, look in, stare curiously at the participants, and wonder if there is trouble. In general, their spontaneous actions reflect the ebb and flow of the conversation between the priest and the lieutenant. In their debate, the lieutenant supplies some of the reasons that the government has been able to implement its anticlericism; the debate also provides a good basis for understanding the total Mexican situation.
The lieutenant pictures the outlawed Church as not being pristine — in fact, as having sponsored a spy network of religious persecution, in which one villager might be encouraged to inform on another less "holy" citizen -a system presided over by a clergyman who took note of who made their Easter duty and who missed the sacraments. Furthermore, the lieutenant points out, the sins of the most corrupt landowners (even murder) were forgiven by a glib dispensation in Confession, and the confessor (the priest) was obligated to "forget" whatever he heard during this sacrament of penance. Because of this seal of confession, then, priests were essentially prohibited from all social involvement. The lieutenant says further that he himself must respond with all of his emotions in the cause of a greater and happier nation -one no longer infested by clergymen who have to be hunted down and eradicated.
The positive view of the essential Church, presented by the priest, embodies Greene's view that the Catholic religion will survive all adversities caused by the overzealousness and ignorance of both those who would save it and those who would destroy it. For his part, the priest deftly avoids discussing specific ecclesiastical abuses. For example, he points out that in the lieutenants perfect State, the burden of censorship will simply shift from the clergy to the police, and he cleverly argues that authority must be invested in the institution, not in the individual. What will happen, he asks, when the present leaders of the revolution are dead, their places taken by corrupt followers?
The lieutenant's admission — that incompetents like the jefe will always exist — does little to deny the main thrust of the priest's thesis. The priest can hear confessions and dispense the Holy Eucharist even though he is a drunk, a lecher, and a coward. But what base of power do the State's officials operate from? The priest makes his points even clearer when he asks for Padre Jose to hear his last confession. This Catholic priest, speaking for the Church, believes as his Church has taught him: a priest, even a priest Eke Padre Jose retains the power of the priest despite the shambles of his personal existence.
The priest dwells on the boundlessness of God's love; to him, God's love is the major proof of the sterility of a state, which rationalizes miracles and claims that God's Providence can be explained away by man's expanded consciousness. Greene portrays the State's ideal of perfection as a part-for-part harmony, without the luster of mystery, and essentially without love. Dependent upon the questionable strength of character of its police, the State is terribly vulnerable to human corruption. The Church, on the other hand, often functions through sin and in spite of imperfection. Its harmony is deeper and not so brittle; in fact, it will call up yet one more nameless priest at the conclusion of this novel to fulfill the famous prophecy, "The gates of Hell shall not prevail . . ." against the Church.
Greene's point in all of this is that an organization which relies merely upon human beings misses the mark and is, by its very nature, temporal. The lieutenant, in his insistence that his vision of the future state will remove all pain — physical, psychological, and spiritual — is uttering the trite "Crystal Palace" thinking of the mid-nineteenth century.
Greene, through the priest, is adroit with language and logic, and this cleverness is symbolized when the priest "tricks" the lieutenant at cards. He bests him in this diversion, just as he bests him in forensics, and yet, this seeming diversion fits into the novel in many ways. The serious and somber lieutenant is defined by his opening remarks: "I don't play cards . . ." The priest assures him that he does not want a full game but merely to demonstrate a few tricks.
The three cards and the three packs suggest the Holy Trinity, in this mordantly humorous exchange, as the lieutenant is defeated by the priest's religious arguments. The search for the
missing jack mirrors the lieutenant's novel-long hunt for the priest, with the name of this one trick connoting the priest's retreat, "Fly-away jack." In addition, the Church is seen to possess two "Jacks" in this novel, the second arising almost from the ashes of the first priest.
The lieutenant's reaction to the trick is spontaneous and typifies his abrupt response to anything which he cannot understand: "I suppose you tell the Indians that this is a miracle of God." He does, however, relate the cards explicitly to Greene's theory of the trickery behind some ecclesiastical practices when he speaks of them in disgust, associating them with the infamous Guilds.