Ivan Illich and the American Catholic Missionary Initiative in Latin America

By Hartch, Todd | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Ivan Illich and the American Catholic Missionary Initiative in Latin America


Hartch, Todd, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


In 1966 Ivan Illich sent the National Catholic Reporter an antimissionary article, but it was returned to him as "needlessly polemical." Having declined the magazine's offer to resubmit a milder version, Illich sent the article to the Jesuit journal America, which not only accepted the article as written but also timed its publication to coincide with the Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program (CICOP), a conference designed to foster American Catholic support of the church in Latin America. Illich arrived at CICOP with 3,000 copies of "The Seamy Side of Charity," enough for every participant to read his indictment of the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America. (1)

The article succeeded admirably in provoking controversy, just as Illich hoped. First, he condemned the American hierarchy for starting a missionary program "on an impulse supported by uncritical imagination and sentimental judgment." Second, Illich attacked the results of the initiative. Foreign "aid" drastically increased the costs of the Latin American churches and made these churches dependent on foreign funds and personnel, resulting in a "patently irrelevant pastoral system" that was impossible to sustain. Third, Illich confronted American missionaries about their self-deception. They were "pawns in a world ideological struggle" and "a colonial power's lackey chaplains." (2) From the podium of the conference, Louis Luzbetak of the Society of the Divine Word characterized the article as "profoundly" misguided and contended that missions was beneficial to both the United States and Latin America because "cultures tend to grow in proportion to their exposure to cross-fertilization." (3) Cardinal Richard Cushing, who had advocated sending Americans to Latin America, denounced the article as an attack on the pope that contained "colossal lies" and constituted "a grave injustice" to those who were laying down their lives for Latin America . (4) Around the world, bishops, priests, religious sisters, and missionaries read the article and reacted with surprise and anger but also, in some cases, a surprising degree of agreement. Whether they agreed or disagreed, Catholics interested in Latin America could not avoid responding in some way: "After the article appeared, few people, if any, could carry out their assignments without re-examining what they were doing, without asking themselves if, perhaps, there was something after all to what Illich was saying." (5) The article then spread to mainline Protestant groups and became an antimissionary classic.

"The Seamy Side of Charity" brought Ivan Illich to the attention of many missionaries and church leaders and remains one of his main claims to fame, but few remember today that the article represented a final, public stage in a campaign that Illich had been waging, mostly in private, since 1961. After Pins XII and John XXIII had called for a major program of aid to Latin America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Catholic bishops in the United States organized a Latin America Bureau in their organization, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and began a serious missionary effort in Latin America. (6) John Considine, the head of the Latin America Bureau, chose Illich to train these missionaries because of Illich's successful ministry among Puerto Ricans in New York City and his apparent commitment to training missionaries. What Considine did not realize, even as Illich was setting up the Center for Intercultural Formation (CIF), a missionary training center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, was that Illich's interest in the program stemmed primarily from his desire to subvert it.

Born in 1926 in Vienna to a Croatian father and a Jewish mother, Illich earned master's degrees in theology and philosophy and a doctorate in history by age twenty-four; he was adept in German, Yiddish, Italian, French, Serbo-Croatian, Latin, Greek, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. (7) He came to the United States in 1951 to study at Princeton University, but his fascination with New York's Puerto Rican population led him to a position as a parish priest in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. …

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