I am in the process of re-reading Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. The book has not been without its criticisms, as some in the Church were deeply offended by the content when it was published in 1940. I read it my senior year of high school in AP English, but I must confess, I didn’t understand it. This “whisky priest” was far from my own experiences of priests. I had grown up with a mild-mannered Irish priest for most of my childhood and was pretty insulated at the time.
Years later, I have seen a lot more in the priesthood, so I can understand the novel at a much deeper level. Those who are offended seem to miss the profound truths at work in the novel. As the main character, an unnamed “whiskey priest”—who has fostered an illegitimate daughter and is an alcoholic—flees in fear and cowardice from the Mexican authorities, the sacred dignity of the priest is constantly on display throughout the story.
The novel takes place in the Tabasco region of Mexico during the persecution of the Catholic Church, which had led to the martyrdom of many priests and the Cristero War. The priest has been on the run for years from government police who want to execute him. Interestingly, he does not accept the option given to him to give up his public ministry and marry. Something in him rebels against this surrender, even though many priests he knows capitulated.
He has abandoned many of his priestly ways. The whiskey priest no longer prays the Divine Office and leaves his breviary after one of his failed attempts to flee by boat. He still hears confessions, celebrates Mass in secret when able to do so, and baptizes. But he often does so begrudgingly and knows he is completely unworthy of the sacred office he’s been entrusted with. He knows he is a coward and a drunk who holds God in his hands and feeds God to His people.
He celebrates Mass in a state of mortal sin, since he himself has not been to Confession ever since fostering an illegitimate daughter during a brief drunken encounter with one of the women in his flock. Most humiliating of all, members of the laity are willing to sacrifice their own lives for a scoundrel like him because he bears the indelible mark placed upon his soul by the Eternal High Priest through his bishop.
“These people are martyrs—not a man like me, who loves all the wrong things. Perhaps I had better escape—if I tell people how it was over here, perhaps they will send a good man with a fire of love…”
In light of the 2002 and 2018 clergy sex abuse scandals, the weakness of fallen men and the evil that runs through human hearts has been on full display within the priesthood. The book, while fictional, is not far off the mark. It has been the case that many priests down through Church history have fled from the heights of their calling when confronted with suffering or sacrifice.
In my twenties, there was a priest who would come into where I worked with the glassy eyes of someone who had been drinking too much. There were murmurings of his drinking and inappropriate behavior with women and it was eventually quietly dealt with by the diocese until his death. I have watched priests publicly and privately leave their priesthood behind for a variety of reasons, including affairs. Former priest Jonathan Morris, of Fox News fame, publicly announced his exit from the priesthood in order to marry.
It is easy to be angered by such a priest as the “whiskey priest”. In fact, there should be righteous anger towards a man entrusted by God with the salvation of souls who becomes a coward and seeks to save his own skin while his flock freely dies for him. There is something inherently backwards about it. In the midst of this character’s sin, the author draws out that a priest is set apart by God for a sacred purpose and position. We can never lose sight of this truth, no matter the sins priests commit against the flock.
Only he can confect the Holy Eucharist. A priest in the state of mortal sin—while his soul is in serious danger of damnation—still has the valid faculties of a priest. His consecrated hands still bring forth the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The words of absolution spoken from his mouth still absolve sins. It is this sacred character and his call to be an alter Christus and act in persona Christi that has led many members of the laity down through history to give up their lives in order to protect priests.
We all hope and pray that priests who encounter persecutions as intense as the socialists in Mexico or the Communists in the Soviet Union will triumph in the call to sanctity. As the flock, we crave authentic witnesses like St. John Paul II, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. He survived many dangers and hardships. He lost loved ones. There were two assassination attempts on his life. He studied for the priesthood while risking his life.
Reality can be much more complicated, disappointing, and distressing. The utter failure, disregard, greed, clericalism, sin, and indifference of the clergy sex abuse cover-ups and subsequent bureaucratic response have shown us this hard truth. We hope and pray for saints, but persevere when we are given “whiskey priests” instead. Christ desires the salvation of the McCarricks too. A validly ordained priest, who may be vile, is still a priest of Jesus Christ.
I have this discussion with my daughter regularly and I’ve had to remind friends of mine struggling with the state of the hierarchy that even McCarrick’s Masses and Sacraments were valid. The Sacraments are given by God through the principle of ex opere operato. They are accomplished through Christ’s power, not of the priest’s own accord. It is heresy to believe otherwise.
Priests have been given an immense dignity and character, as well as a calling to be crucified with Christ for the salvation of souls in order to love as spiritual fathers and good shepherds. Many accept this calling fully and many do not. The same can be said for those in lay vocations and religious vocations. It doesn’t change the priesthood itself, however. Christ calls who He wills, knowing ahead of time whether each man will fully embrace that calling or not. He even called Judas to be among the Twelve.
My daughter will often ask me about the validity of a priesthood in relation to ever increasingly more evil sins. I have told her that a priest could kill and still celebrate a valid Mass. His soul is in serious danger and he’s added sacrilege to that Mass, but his faculties are not dependent upon him. Thanks be to God for that!
This is a difficult truth for some people, which is why they probably were offended by much of The Power and the Glory. I’ve even had people tell me they think certain priests aren’t validly ordained. That is up to the Church and God to decide, not us. I see the tremendous power of God at work in His priests, even the most cowardly and sinful.
It requires effort on our part when we are confronted with the sins of priests in our own lives, but it is a testament to how grace abounds all the more in the face of sin and darkness. Despite the sacrilege committed—which is egregious—Our Lord still comes body, blood, soul, and divinity into the hands of the most evil of priests. He still freely offers himself over to traitors and those who would crucify Him today out of love for us.