Remembering Ivan Illich. (Opinion)
Berger, Peter L., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Ivan Illich died in Bremen on December 2, 2002 at the age of seventy-six. As a German friend of his put it: "God gave him a beautiful death." Illich suddenly collapsed while at work in his study and died immediately. The New York Times obituary noted, quite correctly, that Illich's influence was long past. A young colleague to whom I mentioned his passing, for example, had never heard of him. But the stature of a man must not be measured by the shifting winds of fashion. At one time Illich had been an important figure in the intellectual world--no less than in my life.
Illich was born in Vienna, the son of a Croatian father and a German-Jewish mother. He studied in Salzburg and in Rome, finished with a doctorate in history, and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Contrary to what many people assumed, he wanted it known that he had never ceased to be a priest. He did not write about theology, but his thought and his piety were marked by a very conservative Catholicism. Once, when he was sick, I visited him in his bedroom in Cuernavaca. It was spartan, reminiscent of a monastic cell. Over his bed hung an enormous crucifix.
Illich moved to New York in 1951, serving in a largely Latino parish. In 1956 he became vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he got into trouble with the local hierarchy because he criticized the role of the Church in Puerto Rican politics. In 1960 he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he founded the institution that served as his base for many years--the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC). It was a most unusual place. Located on an attractive rented estate, it was a think tank bringing together for lectures and innumerable conversations a highly heterogeneous group of bright people--North and Latin Americans, Europeans, Catholics and non-Catholics, from the left and the right. CIDOC had no outside funding. It sustained itself in an uncommon way--by operating a very successful program of instruction in Spanish, charging the usual rates for this kind of activity.
Illich wrote and published continuously. His book Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution (1969) was an injunction to think and live autonomously, in defiance of convention. Illich quickly became a celebrity, especially in circles identified with the burgeoning counterculture. He spoke to large audiences in the Americas and in Europe. One book followed another. Deschooling Society (1971), a frontal assault on modern education, probably his best-known work. Tools for Conviviality (1973), a call for human relations freed from the constraints of status and consumership. Energy and Equity (1974), a work in tune with many of the themes of the emergent environmental movement. Medical Nemesis (1976), an attack on the technologization and impersonality of modern medicine, which opened with the lapidary sentence: "The medical establishment has become a major threat to health." Toward the end of the 1970s came an influential essay, "Shadow-Work," which criticized the downgrading of unpaid labor, especially that of women--needless to say, it was hailed by feminists.
It is easy to see why Illich's ideas resonated well in the cultural climate of the time. But he disappointed, one by one, most of the groups who first believed him to be one of them. Catholics were irritated when he criticized missionaries in Latin America as cultural imperialists. The counterculture discovered that he found repugnant many if not most of their proclivities, from drugs to promiscuous sex. He upset the left when, after a visit to Cuba, he described the Castro regime as an odious tyranny. And feminists were deeply offended when he argued, some years after "Shadow-Work," that women had been better off in traditional societies in which they devoted themselves to the life of the family. Illich was a genie who could not be kept in any bottle. Like Goethe's Mephistopheles, he was a "spirit who ever negates. …