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The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection
The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection

State University of New York Press, 2024
268 pp., 32.95

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by Christopher Shannon

The Death and Rebirth of Ivan Illich

A call to Christian conspiracy.

The passing of philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich in December of 2002 made little more than a blip on the radar screen of the American culture of critical discourse. Works such as Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Energy and Equity, and Medical Nemesis established Illich as a leading voice in the radical rethinking of modern social institutions we have come to associate with the 1960s. But by the late 1970s, Illich began to see his countercultural star fall in the face of an emerging intellectual consensus all too willing to judge thinkers by conventional political categories of liberal and conservative. In an obituary oozing with a smug self-referentiality uniquely its own, The New York Times declared Illich's thought obsolete by citing the changing assessment of a Times columnist who had praised Illich in 1971, but by 1989 had declared that he had thrown out all his personal copies of Illich's books. Only slightly less condescending, Peter Berger's personal reflections in First Things tempered a similar intellectual dismissal by acknowledging a certain respect for Illich's personal integrity and an appreciation for his lifelong commitment to Roman Catholicism.

Illich's Christian faith may come as a bit of a surprise to those who knew him exclusively as a savage critic of modern education or through his environmental writing in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. It nonetheless provides a revealing leitmotif running through the essays that make up The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection, edited by Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham and published shortly before Illich's death. A kind of anticipatory eulogy, this collection of the essays by friends, colleagues, students, and admirers reflects in range, if not quality, the scope of Illich's intellectual career, suggesting that his road less traveled may yet provide some guidance for those who refuse give up on the search for viable alternatives to capitalist modernity. That Illich consistently referred to this road as a Via Crucis should provide inspiration to Christians looking for models of social and political engagement rooted in a distinctly Christian theological framework.

Even at the height of Illich's popularity in the mid-1970s, his Christian faith was something like a best-kept secret. One of the few book-length studies of Illich published during this period, John L. Elias' Conscientization and Deschooling, claimed Illich for a tradition of Catholic humanism but acknowledged that most readers would be surprised by such a claim. A quarter century later, Illich's religious orientation still gives cause for surprise. In the opening essay of The Challenges of Ivan Illich, Lee Hoinacki writes that people understand Illich variously as a social critic, a historian, or a philosopher, but only rarely as a theologian.

Were Illich's faith a purely private or intellectual matter, this might be understandable. However, Illich began his public career in the 1950s as a Roman Catholic priest working with Puerto Rican immigrants at Incarnation Parish in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Against the assimilationist ethos of the early civil rights movement and anticipating the Second Vatican Council's endorsement of "inculturation," Illich argued that the Church could best serve the newly arrived Puerto Ricans by helping them to sustain their traditional liturgical and devotional practices in their new environment. Unlike the progressive, "social justice" Catholicism of the late 1960s, Illich saw culture, rather than economic inequality, as the starting point in the pastoral care of the poor. Hoinacki notes Illich's academic training in the history of liturgy, and argues that Illich "understood … that the most ominous expression of secularization in the West was … the decline of liturgy, the routinization and emptying out of religious ritual in the churches." The liturgical lens through which Illich read modernity may account for the difficulty so many secular intellectuals have had in understanding, much less accepting, his social critique.

Illich's parish ministry provided the intellectual foundation for all his subsequent writings. As few are aware of this period of Illich's life, the essay by Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, SJ, "Ivan Illich as We Knew Him in the 1950s," is the real gem of this collection. When Illich arrived in New York in 1951, Fitzpatrick was teaching sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx. Having earned his doctorate in sociology from Harvard University, Fitzpatrick was among the first generation of Catholic priests who saw immersion in secular learning as essential to the task of making the Church relevant to the modern world. Illich, born into an Austrian family of minor nobility, came to the United States to pursue postdoctoral research at Princeton University. Though educated to the highest European standards in history and philosophy, Illich actually knew little of modern social theory; Fitzgerald modestly takes credit for introducing Illich to the works of Durkheim, Weber, and the other great writers of modern sociology.

Still, Illich and Fitzgerald found their most fruitful collaboration at the level of practice rather than theory. Illich accepted the assignment at Incarnation parish as a condition for receiving a sabbatical to study at Princeton. He arrived in America at the height of the Great Migration that saw over half a million Puerto Ricans emigrate to New York between 1946 and 1964. Traditionally an Irish American parish, Incarnation found itself a center for Puerto Rican Catholics. Illich quickly mastered Spanish in order to minister more effectively to his flock; he also spent summer vacations in Puerto Rico immersing himself in the peasant culture of the countryside. On one of his visits, Illich learned of Fitzgerald as the only other New York-based clergyman to go to Puerto Rico to study the cultural background of the immigrants. Back in New York, Illich and Fitzgerald struck up a friendship and began to collaborate on a variety of innovative pastoral projects.

At the heart of Illich's pastoral vision lay the conviction that ministering to the poor requires not so much service as presence. Illich sought not to help the poor, but to be poor. Being poor meant many things, from the biblical ideal of the poor in spirit to a more anthropologically informed notion of cultural poverty, or the abdication of one's cultural assumptions in order to immerse oneself in the life of the poor. Fitzgerald and Illich sought to embody this ministry of presence in their first collaborative outreach project, El Cuartito de Maria, or The Little House of Mary. Illich arranged for Incarnation to rent an apartment in one of the tenements heavily populated with Puerto Rican (potential) parishioners. Women from the parish volunteered to watch and play with children so that mothers could work or run errands, but the purpose of the project was neighborly rather than vocational. Illich insisted that establishing personal relationships with the immigrants was a more important ministry than any program of material or spiritual uplift.

By the standards of 1950s social work, El Cuartito de Maria did not do much to improve the lives of the poor, but then that was never Illich's intention. Much to the confusion of his church colleagues, and later his secular interlocutors, Illich rejected not only the idea of improvement, but the very language of doing and making, both of which he saw undermining authentic human relationships in the modern world. Illich's greatest pastoral innovation was, appropriately enough, a revival of a premodern practice, the Fiesta de San Juan. Naming the event after the patron saint of Puerto Rico, Illich conceived of the event on the model of traditional fiestas patronales, which freely mixed religious processions and a solemn high mass with picnicking, card playing, music, dance, and theater. If the Irish could have St. Patrick's Day on March 17, Illich reasoned, the Puerto Ricans should have St. John's Day on June 24. Illich took charge of promotional efforts, placing ads in Spanish language newspapers and eliciting support from slick Madison Avenue executives. On June 23, the eve of the feast, the police estimated they would need officers to control a crowd of about 5,000; the next day, 35,000 people descended on Fordham for a celebration of ethnic cultural identity unprecedented in postwar America.

Illich's success in New York led to an appointment as director of the pastoral training program at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Conflicts with the Church hierarchy drove him from Puerto Rico to Cuernavaca, Mexico, and eventually forced him to resign from active priestly service. The reasons for Illich's departure from the priesthood are complex, ranging from the obtuseness of his clerical superiors to Illich's own intractable, and at times self-defeating, anti-institutionalism. Fitzgerald concludes his essay by sharing how he often cautioned Illich on the dangers—and contradictions—of, in effect, institutionalizing anti-institutionalism.

Illich's anarchism has struck many as impractical, but outside Catholic circles his traditionalism has appeared as nothing short of immoral. Appeals to peasant and folk traditions routinely opened Illich to dismissive charges of nostalgia for a past that never existed. Some of the more interesting essays in the collection feature personal reflections by converts of sorts—that is, confirmed modernists who had their understanding of tradition transformed through study with Illich. The title of Eugene J. Burkart's essay, "From the Economy to Friendship: My Years of Studying Ivan Illich," nicely captures the intellectual reorientation necessary in order to understand Illich.

Burkart writes of how Illich's international reputation as a radical social critic drew him to study at Illich's Center for Intercultural Documentation at Cuernavaca, Mexico. Arriving at Cuernavaca in 1973, committed to social justice for the poor, Burkart was deeply angered by Illich's cavalier attitude toward practical, material issues of wealth distribution. At first, he saw Illich as a fake, simply another privileged intellectual more concerned with spinning abstract theories than with helping the poor. Gradually, he came to realize that Illich was the real thing, but in a different way than he had ever imagined: "When listening to him I often had the experience that it was as if I were learning a new language, and with it a new way of thinking and seeing."

Illich understood industrial capitalism well enough to see that the various liberal and Marxist schemes for the liberation of the poor were symptoms of rather than cures for the instrumental social relations of a free-market society. Burkart sees Illich's deeper critique issuing not in a better plan to remake society but in a new (yet also very old) relation: "he rests his hope on such a humble, fragile, one might easily say foolish, task: the simple but arduous one of being present to this person who stands in front of me." Illich thus inspired Burkart to renew his commitment to small-scale, local activism.

So, does the message of the greatest social critic of the last half-century come down to "Think Globally, Act Locally?" Yes and no. Illich's localism resonates with a certain kind of green politics, yet his deeply Christian conception of action remains beyond the pale of the secular counterculture. "The Cultivation of Conspiracy," the essay by Illich included in the collection, is a classic example of the kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch that has often left Illich without an audience: the title suggests a new Leninism but actually delivers a very old Christian communalism. Addressing the recurring intellectual dilemma of "what is to be done?", Illich counsels, of all things, hospitality: "Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge." As models of hospitality, Illich draws on the social ethic of the monastery, and, perhaps more significantly, the kiss of peace in the liturgy of the early Church:

The ecclesia came to be through a public ritual action, the liturgy, and the soul of this liturgy was a conspiratio. Explicitly, corporeally, the central Christian celebration was understood as a co-breathing, a con-spiracy, the bringing about of a common atmosphere, a divine milieu.

Christian conspiracy transforms the world not by providing a blueprint for social change, but rather by providing a model for an alternative way of life.

Since Marx, modern philosophy has tried to change the world. After Illich, traditional philosophy would seek to embody a world—not necessarily a Christian world, but one oriented toward permanence and against change. The essays in this collection remain primarily in the critical mode that Illich calls us out of: they do not embody alternatives so much as provide exercises in the paradigm shift necessary to imagine a future embodiment. Alfons Garrigós' "Hospitality Cannot Be a Challenge" appropriately takes issue with the very title of the collection: "As long as we continue proposing the main issues of our time as challenges, offenses, or crises against which we have to test our strength, we will persist in making the same mistakes that gave rise to the problems in the first place." Illich frustrates readers precisely because he does not challenge our strength, but our weakness; with St. Paul, Illich affirms, "when I am weak, then I am strong."

Despite several fine essays, this collection is not the best place for the uninitiated to explore Illich's particular take on the paradoxical truths of Christianity. Written by longtime friends and colleagues, the essays assume a familiarity with Illich quite rare among readers under the age of fifty. For those who read Illich 25 years ago and wonder what happened to him, this collection is a good place to start. For those coming to Illich for the first time, I would recommend starting with the major works upon which his reputation rests: Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, and Medical Nemesis. For all skeptical of the virtues of the new world order, I would hope that Illich's passing might provide the occasion for the recovery of his truth.

Christopher Shannon is a fellow of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. He is the author of A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity (Rowman & Littlefield) and Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought from Veblen to Mills (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press).

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