Ivan Illich and Leo Mahon: Folk Religion and Catechesis in Latin America

Article excerpt

Priest and social critic Ivan Illich played a major role in discouraging Roman Catholic missions from the United States to Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, as detailed in a previous issue of this journal. (1) To make a long story short, during the early 1960s Illich first used his position as the director of a training center for missionaries to persuade would-be missionaries to go back to the United States; in 1967 he wrote a denunciation of American missionary activity called "The Seamy Side of Charity," which spread his ideas to almost every Catholic missionary in Latin America and also to the wider Catholic public in the United States.

This article contrasts Illich with Chicago priest Leo Mahon, who led a mission project in Panama sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Between 1962 and 1980 Mahon and a team of priests, nuns, and laypeople tried to establish an experimental parish that not only would reach the residents of the San Miguelito neighborhood outside of Panama City but also would serve as a model for other mission projects and for the rest of the Catholic Church in Latin America. For a time this experiment proved wildly successful, but eventually it, like many North American missionary projects of the time, ended in almost complete defeat.

Illich: Folk Religion vs. Consumer Catholicism

So what was all the fuss about in the first place? Why was Catholic priest Ivan Illich so upset about U.S. Catholic missions to Latin America? The story begins on August 17, 1961, when Monsignor Agostino Casaroli, speaking on behalf of Pope John XXIII, challenged the Catholic Church in the United States to send 10 percent of its priests, nuns, and religious brothers to Latin America, and American Catholics responded with a surge of interest and hundreds of new missionaries. (2) Illich, who had served as vice-rector of a Catholic university in Puerto Rico and had been commissioned by Fordham University to run a training center for future missionaries in Cuernavaca, Mexico, eventually came to believe that the influx of missionaries was part of a "multifaceted plan to keep Latin America within the ideologies of the West" and to turn the Latin American church into "a satellite to North American cultural phenomena and policy," as he wrote in "The Seamy Side of Charity." (3) Because of their cultural baggage, missionaries from the United States had transformed the church in Latin America into "the Lord's supermarket"; even the best missionaries were doing no more than "maintaining a clerical and irrelevant church." He had little but scorn for the vast majority of American missionaries, calling them "a colonial power's lackey chaplains," "U.S. liberals who cannot make their point at home," and "traveling escapists." These missionaries had to accept that they were "useless and even harmful" because they were purveying not true Christianity but a modern perversion of the religion. Illich was vehement in his denunciation of the missionary initiative, risking his very priesthood, because he saw this form of missions as a caricature of Christ's call to bring the Gospel to all nations. The Peace Corps, American cultural imperialism, the spread of American business models--these all were evils in his mind. Much worse, however, was the corruption of the body of Christ into "the Lord's supermarket, with catechisms, liturgy, and other means of grace heavily in stock." (4)

At the same time, Illich did not view popular Latin American Catholicism as deficient. Whereas many Catholic social scientists and missionary intellectuals saw the Catholic practice of most Latin Americans as clearly substandard, Illich had no such qualms, primarily because of his experiences in Puerto Rico. "For anybody who has ever breathed the atmosphere of the Island," he said of Puerto Rico, "there is no doubt that theirs is a Catholic folk-culture." He went on to describe the ways in which people who had little contact with the institutional church nevertheless "regularly ask their parents' blessing before leaving the house," "devotedly invoke the names of Our Lord or the Virgin," "plaster their homes with holy pictures," and "sign themselves with the Cross before leaving home. …