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James R. KellyOctober 21, 2015
The Prophet of Cuernavacaby Todd Hartch

Oxford University Press. 256p $29.95

Ivan Illich became an almost big name briefly in the early 1970s, so why a book nearly four decades after his public intellectual sunset? After all, he solved no problems and was impossible to categorize. While often considered a revolutionary thinker (while he himself did not) he didn’t get along with the anti-war activist Dan Berrigan, S.J., but got along fine with Cardinal Francis Spellman of “America right or wrong” notoriety. While both the left and the right of his era cited him, neither could claim him. The Federal Bureau of Investigation spied on him but then dismissed him as merely “an anti-Communist with a leftist-reform attitude.” Some found him prickly, confrontational and difficult. Philosophically he was hard to fathom: a fierce critic of the political colonization by nations and of the economic colonization resulting from free markets, he was neither a liberation theologian nor a militant revolutionary.

In this extensive review of archival sources and personal letters, Todd Hartch, fair-minded and readable, shows Illich as understanding himself as standing for true revolution in society and true renewal of Catholicism. Little done by either the left or the right in the name of either renewal or revolution passed his truth test. Readers finding themselves uncomfortable with all the available reform-revolution categories will find this appreciative yet critical Illich biography a good read.

Ivan Illich’s life prepared him for intellectual nonconformity. Illich was born in 1926 and grew up in Vienna, his father an aristocratic Croatian and his mother a German from a family of Jewish converts. During World War II Illich was classified as a half-Aryan; and when his father died, the family fled to Italy, where Illich finished high school in Florence, studied chemistry at the local university and joined the resistance movement. For reasons that Hartch describes as murky, at 18 Illich decided to become a priest and was ordained in 1951. He earned a doctorate in history at the University of Salzburg, doing his thesis on the global histories of Arnold Toynbee and the epistemology of historical knowing. While working on his thesis, Illich returned to the Gregorian University in Rome to study philosophy and theology, wrote on Romano Guardini and read Thomas Aquinas informally with Jacques Maritain, who later viewed his writings as antimissionary and traitorous to the church.

In the early 1950s he came to the United States and at Princeton University earned a second doctorate (on Albertus Magnus). It was in the United States, while serving at Incarnation Parish in New York City among Puerto Rican immigrants, that the many-rooted but unrooted intellectual Illich found his life’s centering mission. Befriending Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., of Fordham University, and Fordham’s president, Lawrence McGinley, S.J., Illich secured the money and social capital he needed to start a language training school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wanted to train North American priests and laypeople for missionary work in South America.

None of Illich’s first supporters expected the scorching critique to come of what he called the instinctive Americanism of American missionaries, which, he taught, inevitably eroded the indigenous peoples’ nontraditional but authentic Christianity by infecting them with a desire for an individualistic and competitive standard of living that inevitably vitiated the communitarian ethos of Christianity.

This theme pervaded all Ivan Illich’s writing: The morally underdeveloped West could not resolve the problem of global inequality. Nor could the Western church. Following the criticism by bishops after the publication of such works as “the Seamy Side of Charity” (America, 1/21/1967) and his overt efforts to “de-Yankeefy” American missionaries, Illich left the active ministry (but not the priesthood) and repurposed the religious Center for Intercultural Formation, the training center for missionaries, into the secular Intercultural Documentation Center, which, in turn, he closed in 1976, very soon after he had attracted wider attention as a public intellectual and critic.

Hartch judges that Illich produced major works of lasting value, among them Deschooling Society (1970), The Church, Change and Development (1970), Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973); Energy and Equity (1974) and Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (1976). He gives a thorough account of two of these, Medical Nemesis and Deschooling Society, which show Illich’s distrust of what the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) called the “routinization of charisma,” whereby the institutionalization of some virtuous intent inevitably leads to self-serving arrangements that subvert the very good they once intended.

The first two sentences of Medical Nemesis provide a good sample of Illich’s jolting style: “The medical establishment has become a major threat to health. The disabling impact of professional control over medicine has reached the proportions of an epidemic.” Medicine, he wrote, had become counterproductive and was actually sickening the culture through “the medicalization of life,” whereby people become consumers of the commodity of health care and in the process lose their ability and responsibility to care for themselves while becoming dependent on officially sanctioned experts. Anticipating the hospice movement, Illich found most dismaying the widespread fear of dying outside of a hospital, which, he thought, had reached the point of obliterating hallowed and ancient cultural resources that taught people the meanings and proper responses to disease, calamity and death.

Central to Illich’s cultural argument was his distinction between pain, the physical sensation that humans shared with animals, and suffering, a practice and art leading to courage and an acknowledgment that reality is harsh and death inevitable. Modern medicine had neglected the deep human need for meaning and community and had transferred pain into a demand for more drugs, hospitals and medical services. “In a drug-induced stupor, medicated and managed to the last instant of life,” he wrote, “the modern patient had little awareness of being human and even less ability to suffer in conscious communion with Christ.”

Illich’s anchoring focus was the person-in-community, who inevitably is absorbed by the mega-groups and metaphysics of modernity. Since Illich there have been many critiques of the top-down “tyranny of experts” practiced in think tanks, international financial agencies and private foundations. The components of the West’s hubris—economic progress, technological progress, educational progress—to Illich are simply illusions that cannot create the human solidarity they erode. Better than anyone, Illich helps us to judge the term “expert,” a pejorative unless persons and their communities are the agents of their self-betterment and not the objects of our progress.

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