We suspect that Graham Greene sat down one say and thought to himself, "I think I'll write a novel about a martyr, but instead of making him a holy man of God, I'll make him a real scoundrel. A stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. Yeah, that'll shake things up." And boy did it ever!
The unnamed priest certainly gives into his fair share of sins. He's proud, envious, dishonest, cowardly, weak of faith, judgmental, and gluttonous. He has a daughter, meaning he broke his vow to stay celibate. Oops. He feels bitter and sometimes even hatred for the people he serves. He giggles awkwardly like Homer Simpson. And he's not really sorry for all the bad things he's done. Let's just say he wouldn't be in the running to win The Church's Got Talent. He's the last guy you'd want for your parish priest, but too bad for his poor parishioners, he's the only priest they have.
So what's the deal? Does Graham Greene dislike priests? No, but he dislikes false piety and sanitized religion—the kind of religious perspective that judges everyone as either good or bad, like a mean and shallow high-school cheerleader. Greene isn't saying that priests can't be saints; he's saying that even people as offensive as this whisky priest can achieve what the saints achieve. He wrote a story of a saint that fundamentally deconstructs the genre's piety.
More importantly, the moral failings of the priest give the story serious drama. The priest is challenged not only by the need to stay alive so that the Church can stay alive, but also by the realization that his bad example teaches as much as his sermons do. The only way he can help the Church is by staying, but by staying he corrupts the Church:
If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember: it was from him they would take their ideas of the faith. But it was from him too they took God—in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn't it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? even if they were corrupted by his example? (2.1.51)
What a predicament! Too bad there's no other priest he can talk to.
All moral weaknesses aside, the priest believes in what he does. He tells the lieutenant, "I'm not telling them fairy stories I don't believe myself." (3.3.115) What does he believe? In a God he doesn't understand; that he's a wretched sinner and a stain upon the Church; that he's most likely destined for Hell.
As we mentioned above, he's also plagued with doubts. Not about God so much, but about what it means for him to be a priest and about where his real duty lies. He's even torn over whether he wants to get caught. He's terrified of death, but tired of running. He's driven by his own sense of purpose, but also pushed along by the movements of the police and Red Shirts. He's headed towards martyrdom, yet fears that his death will bring mockery to the Church (2.1.166). He's a complex dude. If this were a Disney musical, we'd half expect him to make for the snowy mountains and sing about…that's right…letting everything go.
Life on the run has changed him from a pious pastor who enjoyed cracking irreverent jokes and having his gloved hand kissed to a guilt-and-fever-ridden shadow of a man who feels like he's a burden on those he's meant to serve (2.1.164). But it's not until he's thrown in prison for carrying illegal brandy that he embraces his vocation to the priesthood. Shedding the lies and his cover, he admits to being a priest:
It was like the end: there was no need to hope any longer. The ten year' hunt was over at last. There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time is short (2.3.48).
With his own death waiting for him in the morning, or so he assumes, he puts an end to the running and the lying. He is a priest and he'll openly be a priest, come what may. Surprisingly, however, none of the criminals reveal his identity and the priest is able to leave the next day. But he leaves with purpose, heading for the mountains and the border, believing his escape means that God wants him to live—really live—as a priest.
And, also surprisingly, he gets out. He's free of the lieutenant and the mestizo and those who would bring him harm. But he doesn't find peace beyond the border. Once again, he's uncertain of his duty:
It ought to be possible for a man to be happy here, if he were not so tied to fear and suffering—unhappiness too can become a habit like piety. Perhaps it was his duty to break it, his duty to discover peace. He felt an immense envy of all those people to had confessed to him and been absolved. In six days, he told himself, in Las Casas, I too. … But he couldn't believe that anyone anywhere would rid him of his heavy heart. Even when he drank he felt bound to his sin by love. It was easier to get rid of hate (3.1.116).
In a strange way it's a blessing when the mestizo shows up seeking his aid for a dying man. The priest knows that if he follows the betrayer he'll be captured and killed, but that fate seems more right to him than heading off to a city where he would become respected and comfortable. So he follows.
Don't think that Greene has made this priest into a saint just yet. The priest follows through on his word, but he's not exactly happy about it. He's still terrified of dying…and we don't blame him. He still assumes that he's on the road to Hell. He's captured and dies without fanfare or triumph. He does what saints do, just without all their saintliness.
At the end of the novel, we're left unclear about the final character of the whisky priest. Did he die courageously or cowardly? We can't tell because we see the execution from afar. What does it mean that someone like this priest is a martyr? Just like the Sopranos finale, Greene doesn't really have an easy answer for us.