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The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West
by todd hartch
oxford, 256 pages, $29.95


ho now remembers Ivan Illich? A Catholic priest, his seminars in Cuernavaca were a magnet for scholars, including John Rawls, Peter Berger, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. His early books were international bestsellers that provoked extensive debate. In Celebration of Awareness, Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, Medical Nemesis, Shadow Work, and other volumes, Illich challenged, in bracing and accessible prose, the “certainties” on which modern institutions were built. He was denounced in Opus Dei’s Mexican newspaper as “that strange, devious and slippery personage,” charged by the radical Jesuit Daniel Berrigan with doing intellectual damage to “our religious left,” and interrogated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His controversial star lit the intellectual firmament, but by the time he died in 2002, it had long since faded.

Though they were celebrated for a time by the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, Illich’s views were deeply traditional. Only by freeing our imagination from the “hold of the present,” he once observed, could we reclaim the dispositions that “seem to have been obvious and unquestioned during a thousand years of Western tradition.” These older dispositions toward learning, health, friendship, freedom, and labor have been undermined and displaced by a powerful technocratic and instrumentalizing mentality. Rather than promoting in students a “growth of an independent sense of life,” for instance, or greater creativity, or love of learning, schools often lead pupils to dependency and a deep confusion of “process and substance”—a confusion, he argued in Deschooling ­Society, of “teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence.”

He sought to show how the institutions of technological society substitute rationalistic means for proper human ends and foster pervasive social inequality. And as they transform and condition our “inner senses,” it becomes difficult to conceive of our lives in any other terms. “I often have the impression,” Illich remarked, “that the more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become.” Just so. Yet for Illich that alienness was a necessary price. Only through the appropriation of older dispositions and perceptual modes can we begin to free ourselves from the iron grip in which we are held.


llich’s early years were spent in Vienna and Dalmatia, where his father’s family owned property in Split and on the island of Brac. The traditional life of Brac made a powerful impression on him. Life moved slowly, he recalled, “most of the environment was still in the commons,” and people “lived in houses they had built” and “could depend on their own voices.” In 1941, when Illich was fifteen, he, his siblings, and his mother, who was from a family of converted Sephardic Jews, had to flee Vienna. So began an itinerant life. The family settled in Florence, and from there Illich, who had decided to become a priest, moved to Rome in order to study philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University. He also took a doctorate in Salzburg under Albert Auer, who specialized in the theology of suffering in the twelfth century, a period that would remain a touchstone for Illich throughout his life.

After ordination in 1951, Illich traveled to New York, intending to do postdoctoral research with Jacques Maritain, who had taught him Thomism in Rome and was then at Princeton. Instead, Illich found himself drawn to ministry with New York’s growing Puerto Rican population. His pastoral success with this community led to his being named vice rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 1956. There he established a school to train New Yorkers for pastoral work with Spanish-­speaking immigrants. Training centered on careful study, detachment from one’s own culture, and the cultivation of respect and humility.

During this period, service on the national government’s education commission gave Illich firsthand contact with large-scale administrative practices and bureaucratic talk of “development,” “human resources,” “planning,” and the like. Behind such things he came to see a powerful exclusionary dynamic at work. He criticized international development efforts, for instance, because they worked against the “commons” and ways of life not dependent on consumption. Often, development favored the material and political interests of donor countries. Turning his attention to the Church’s own clericalized structure, he challenged a bureaucratic culture that he saw limiting the laity and stunting pastoral care. During this period, he also began to run afoul of members of the church hierarchy. His opposition to what he saw as the Puerto Rican bishops’ meddling in politics led to his dismissal from the university in 1960.


nother opportunity awaited. The Holy See had been calling for a missionary effort to relieve the clergy shortage in Latin America, and a new training center for American missionaries was needed. Illich and his friend, ­Maryknoll ­Father John Considine, were tapped to create the Center for Intercultural Formation (CIF), which would later become the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (­CIDOC), in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The CIF was marked by a deep spirituality and pastoral innovation, but had a rocky history. Illich worried that the new missionary initiative would be conflated with development efforts such as the U.S. government’s Alliance for Progress (launched after the Cuban revolution), which he saw as an ­imperialistic effort to shore up the status quo.

He also felt that most of those coming to his center for missionary training did not have the necessary skills and aptitudes for this demanding vocation. Unable to bridge cultures, to “feel with others,” such missionaries would unwittingly be condescending and ethnocentric, thereby reinforcing the already great distance between the Church and the poor. This “foreign transfusion,” as he said in a famous America article of 1967, “The Seamy Side of Charity,” would, among other burdens, inflate an archaic and expensive bureaucracy while stifling “imaginative pastoral experimentation” and any need to consider laymen or a married diaconate to “fulfill most evangelical tasks.”

Elsewhere, Illich observed that, in consideration of the social changes transforming the region, it was especially crucial to encourage the work of indigenous laity and to develop a genuinely Latin American ­theology. He came to believe that most ­volunteers, despite being well intentioned, should stay home, and set for himself the openly stated goal of challenging potential candidates and dissuading bishops and religious orders from redirecting manpower just to meet quotas.

Illich’s writing and activities, increasingly contentious, generated considerable opposition and led to a break with Considine. In 1968, Illich was called to the Vatican for questioning. Though no charges were brought against him, there was a temporary ban on priests and religious from taking courses at CIDOC. Apparently Pope Paul VI requested that Illich henceforth “abstain from speaking to groups of priests, brothers and women religious.” In 1969, feeling that his “notorious” status now undermined his priestly duty to serve as a symbol of unity, he formally resigned from active ministry. Though often described as an “ex-priest,” ­Illich in fact remained celibate, said the daily office, and was a priest in good standing for the rest of his life. In his writing he would proceed to first critique the dynamics of modern social institutions and then trace their genealogies to their ­medieval roots.


llich’s role in the U.S. Catholic missionary initiative of the 1960s is the primary subject of The Prophet of Cuernavaca, by historian Todd Hartch. The sending of clergy and religious from North America to Latin America had been encouraged by three popes, from Pius XII to Paul VI, culminating in a call for a commitment of 10 percent of church personnel over a decade. Despite that call, the plan never got close to its projected target. What happened? This is Hartch’s question. His unconvincing answer is that Ivan Illich happened. Hartch clearly has some regard for ­Illich and finds much to admire in his writing. But the portrait he paints of Illich in the 1960s is one of a man of deep but misplaced convictions, brilliant but devious, intent from the very outset to “sabotage,” “foil,” and “derail” the work that he was rightly asked by the Church to do.

He argues that Illich did not understand “the nature of mission itself” and was even opposed in practice to all missionary activity. Through his “prolonged disobedience,” Illich defeated the papal plan to address the clergy shortage and the need to re-evangelize the region in the face of “inroads being made by Protestantism, secularism, and Marxism.” On Hartch’s account, Illich has a lot to answer for.

He conjectures wistfully about what might have been for Catholics in Latin America if Illich had not obstructed the missionary plan. Yet what he doesn’t say is what did happen. This is curious, because he published a book last year on just that subject, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity. In it,he makes no mention of Illich. He instead applauds the powerful Catholic lay movements that have emerged across Latin America since the 1960s and suggests that their development challenges the “underlying assumption,” built into those three papal calls for help, “that the solution to Latin America’s problems [including the priest shortage] would come from outside.” The “liberation and empowerment of the laity,” Hartch argues, has reached every sector of society and allowed Latin America to send its own missions across the world. On my reading, this is just the “revolution” that Illich anticipated and dedicated himself to bring about.


n truth, Illich did not for a minute oppose mission. He took the training of potential missioners so ­seriously because he understood, with unique clarity, the violence of modern institutions. These institutions do not function alongside existing cultural configurations of human goods but displace them. When institutions grow beyond a certain scale, they overwhelm “man and his goals” and become counterproductive to the very beneficial things they seek to provide. Illich understood this paradox. No less importantly, he argued that church administration and “organization priests” could work against lay initiative, pastoral care, the life of grace, and more. Under the regime of modern institutions, life is not so much lived as managed, supervised by experts. Vernacular language and customs are disabled, exchange and service recast in commodity terms, practical self-reliance and ­accumulated wisdom undermined. The resulting passivity and loss of confidence is not something Illich wanted to see imported. For mission and true development—for a “growth into Christ”—we must cultivate another way.

Throughout his career, from his early ministry among the Puerto ­Ricans to his late study of the thought of Hugh of St. Victor, ­Illich pointed toward an alternative. Here we can rightly speak of him as a “prophet.” Not one who foretells what is to come but one whose message challenges current pretensions and imagines a different future. Against modern utopian dreams, Illich demands an ungrudging acceptance of limits. Against Homo economicus and the actuarial ­society, he proffers the unplanned and the non-­commodifiable—contingency, mystery, surprise, and the Spirit. Against managed and ­manipulative social relations, he affirms persons as ­bearers of divine gifts and defends those practices—hospitality to the stranger, care of the neighbor, ­friendship, and love—that are productive of individual freedom and true community. For Ivan Illich, what we must again know and experience is the “world lying in the hands of God.” Nothing could be more alien to our age, and nothing more essential to its renewal.

Joseph E. Davis is research associate professor of sociology at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and the publisher of the Hedgehog Review.