The People's Priest: Ivan Illich Understood the Dangers of Trying to Save the World

Article excerpt

NEXT TIME YOU'RE INVITED to a '70s party and find your Travoltan eveningwear shrunken, bring a book by Ivan Illich. Better yet, find a quiet corner and sit down and read it. No, not the late-Tolstoy novella about that guy who dies, but a book by Ivan double-"1" Illich, the maverick social critic whose fans and followers thundered across multiple continents throughout the late '60s and '70s. The radical priest (and later, radical ex-priest) hasn't been heard much since. Even before his death at age 76 in 2002, his work had fallen out of fashion. New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard snarked in 1989 that in purging his overcrowded shelves, he deep-sixed Illich's oeuvres with especial vigor.

But the work of Ivan Illich deserves a happier afterlife, for he was a remarkably penetrating social critic, a secular heresiarch whose marrow-deep analyses of contemporary institutions--healthcare, education, transport, and economic development--remain pertinent. In the swinging "development decade" of the '70s, Illich captivated a global audience with his counterintuitive theses: institutionalized education is the enemy of learning; cars are immobilizing; modern medicine makes people sick; and the creeping medicalization of life is deeply unhealthy. Behind all of these book-length polemics was the insight that expenditure on various institutions and services becomes, after a certain point, not just counterproductive but toxic. Heady stuff, but readers hoping to find some totally wild rants in his books are usually disappointed; Illich carefully supports his assertions with social-science literature from several languages.

Illich was a quasi-mythical being, and from the bare facts of his biography it's easy to see why. The child of a German-Jewish mother and a Croatian father, he grew up speaking German, Italian, and French, picked up Serbo-Croatian, studied Greek and Latin, and became fluent in Spanish and English. Young Illich survived the Axis's racial policies and after studies in Florence, Rome, and Salzburg earned graduate degrees in history, philosophy, and theology. He was ordained as a priest and seemed set to become the next young polyglot polymath at the Vatican.

Instead, in 1951, he signed up to become a parish priest in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods--Washington Heights, on the northern tip of Manhattan, then a barrio of fresh-off-the-airplane Puerto Rican immigrants. The classically educated bookworm turned out to be an effective and popular priest. The experience of tending to immigrant parishioners as they got flash-fried in urban modernity left a lasting impression of the grotesque inadequacy of large-scale, rationally administrated institutions in dealing with basic human needs.

Having mesmerized Cardinal Spellman, Illich was appointed to run a language school for priests in Puerto Rico, and for a man who would later condemn institutionalized education as oppressive babysitting, he was by all accounts a skillful pedagogue. "The program was rigorous, six or seven hours a day of drills. And if a priest complained, he'd just tell him to pack his bags and leave," remembers Msgr. John Powis, a retired priest who has spent five decades in Brooklyn's working-class neighborhoods. "He'd tell us that if you don't want to learn the people's culture, you'll never learn their language, so don't even bother."

In 1956, the young priest was made vice rector of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico at age 30, a position he managed to keep for several years before getting thrown out--Illich was just a little too loud in his criticism of the Vatican's pronouncements on birth control and comparatively demure silence about the bomb.

But this was the age of Vatican II, and there were plenty of opportunities for a dynamic priest with lots of ideas and good connections. His next stop was Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he founded CIDOC, the Center for Intercultural Documentation. …