e-mail us


A prophet, a teacher, a realistic dreamer


“R-r-read me the last three sentences you have written.” It was the summer of 1968, and the voice, slightly accented, with the trilled “r,” issued from a tall figure in a brown and gray serape lying prone on the floor of my small study at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Dutifully, I read for Ivan Illich, the founder and director of “CIDOC,” the most recent scribblings on the book I was then writing. Then he responded. His comments, as usual, were apt and dazzling. He could conjure historical analogies out of the air, suggest alternative phrasing, pose probing questions.

Illich often sprang one of those unannounced descents on the various guests -- maverick intellectuals, progressive priests -- anyone whose ideas struck his fancy that he had invited to quaff the elixir of the center. He would enter stealthily through the open door, lie on the rough woven carpet, listen attentively to the “last three sentences,” then comment. After a few minutes, he would dash out to stage another surprise visitation on someone else. Or the bell marking the morning break from the Spanish classes might ring, and he would join everyone for coffee and pastries under a clear blue sky on a stone patio scented with red bougainvillea, always blooming in a city whose residents boasted that it enjoyed 365 days a year of balmy summer weather.

When Illich, 76, died at his home in Bremen, Germany, Dec. 2, I remembered the frantic phone call I made to him in June 1968. He had already been at the center for a couple years, and had invited me twice to join his summer faculty. I had never gone, but now I was ready. I had been working in the Robert Kennedy campaign, and when Bobby was killed in Los Angeles, I had wanted to take my family and get away, at least for a while. I called Illich, and he said, “Come.” We did.

Ivan Illich was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in Rome in 1952, and shortly thereafter came to New York. After falling out of favor with Cardinal Francis Spellman, who had originally admired his work as a priest among the Puerto Ricans in Washington Heights, he moved to Puerto Rico where he briefly served as vice rector of the Catholic University in Ponce until tensions with church authorities also arose there. Apparently his superiors all saw him as a brilliant, energetic, but erratic priest who would do just fine if only the right niche could be found. But Illich was never a man who could be placed in a niche. At his next stop in Cuernavaca, however, it appeared that Brer Rabbit had finally reached the briar patch.

But not as the superiors hoped. His original mandate at the Center for Intercultural Documentation was to prepare North America Catholic church workers to serve in Latin America. But he quickly came to believe that what the church south of the Rio Grande needed was not more priests and nuns, especially from North America, but more grass-roots lay initiative. This made him one of the early champions of the base ecclesial communities. Fired by Illich’s new vision, the center rapidly assumed a different profile. With the support of Don Sergio Mendez Arceo, the progressive bishop of Cuernavaca, the center, indeed the whole town, became a magnet for independent thinkers -- students and teachers (and at the center the distinction was never clear) from all over North and South America. Bishop Mendes Arceo always seemed to be able to find an assignment for priests and nuns who had been expelled or suspended from Chile or Brazil or Nicaragua by church or state. The outdoor cafés around the lovely old piazza with its central gazebo and refreshment stands provided only one of the many venues reminiscent of the crackling atmosphere along the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris.

There was a decided buzz about Cuernavaca, especially among young countercultural types, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They arrived in droves, with their backpacks, jeans and recently purchased serapes and sandals. They thronged the boarding houses and inexpensive hotels. Some wanted to learn Spanish, and the center had an excellent language school. Others just wanted to hang out. All wanted to warm themselves in the already legendary glow of Ivan Illich and the cluster of intellectual enfants terribles that surrounded him. But many soon became disillusioned.

Illich, whose ideas on education -- spelled out in his 1971 book De-Schooling Society -- were indeed revolutionary, had utterly no patience with academic slackness. He couldn’t abide people who used language -- any language -- sloppily. He hated empty chatter. He was just as critical of hippy laxity as he was of the moralistic smugness and rigidity of his own church. The young people climbing off the rickety buses may have expected a merry prankster, but instead they found an old-world aristocrat with a hawk nose and piercing eyes who made stringent demands on them, and whose stinging critique of bureaucratic modernity arose from his love of tradition rather than from some Haight-Ashbury version of doing your own thing.

I think the beginning of the end for Illich at Cuernavaca came in that same summer of 1968 when he helped Mendez Arceo draft a respectful but critical response to Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s ill-fated encyclical on contraception. Characteristically, Illich’s re-sponse was not a “liberal” one. It was not based on some claim to individual privacy. It was based on compassion. How could the church expect poor, often illiterate Latin American women to restrict the sexual activity of their husbands to the “safe” days allowed by the rhythm method? Under such a policy they would still be condemned to unending and often unwanted pregnancies. Illich’s views on this touchy subject were never central to his thinking, but they gave church authorities an opportunity to pounce. When, after a humiliating interrogation at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Illich finally decided to request a dispensation from his priestly vows, he told a friend he wanted to keep the chastity and poverty parts, but not the obedience if obedience meant answering to faceless accusers who deprived him of even fundamental procedural justice.

Ivan Illich attracted a swirl of legends, most of them featuring his amazing erudition and derring-do. I think he enjoyed allowing them to flower. How many languages did he really speak? Was it nine or 11 or 13? Had he really hiked alone across Indonesia? Was it true that he had a hookah in his private room? There were many mysteries. A few things are clear however. Illich was born in Vienna in 1926. His mother was Jewish, and therefore -- by strict halakic standards -- so was he. Indeed he was expelled from a school in Vienna in 1941 because of his non-Aryan parentage. His father was an engineer, and Illich always maintained a strong, if skeptical, interest in technology. After he left Cuernavaca he taught at Penn State, where his old friend, Prof. Rustum Roy, found him a position. He also taught in Berlin, Bologna and in Bremen, where he died.

I loved Cuernavaca and I often returned there after Illich left CIDOC. He continued to keep a house there, and we always saw each other. But by the 1980s and ’90s, the city was changing, and not for the better. Where the center once flourished, a mere language school now stood. Mendez Arceo had retired, and I visited him in a nursing home before he died. We talked about the halcyon days of the countercultural center, and he offered me a Cuban cigar, which he said was sent to him by Fidel Castro. His successor was more cautious, and the town was no longer a haven for Catholic progressives.

Cuernavaca itself had become a suburb of Mexico City and was choking on the same green miasma and noisy traffic. I could not help thinking that Illich had seen it all coming. He had cautioned that if we did not judge new technologies in the light of human values we would eventually suffocate in our own detritus. He thought motorcars were a curse on genuine urban conviviality. As a student of traditional folk cures he was a prophet of “alternative medicine,” and he foresaw the current crisis in health care. His highly original proposals for education were dismissed before they were ever tried. His warning -- that the Catholic church would not for long escape a severe institutional crisis brought on not by its doctrines (which he always held to faithfully) but by the haughtiness and sclerosis of its governance -- now appears to be coming painfully true.

Some people thought Illich was either a bothersome gadfly or a wailing Cassandra. He was neither. He was a prophet, a teacher and a realistic dreamer. Although his choice of words was sometimes hyperbolic, his ideas -- on a vast range of subjects -- retain a freshness we need more than ever in our present jaded mood.

As it happened, when I heard of Illich’s death I had just been rereading Leo Tolstoy’s famous story about the death of another Ivan Ilyich. But there is a world of difference between these two Ivans. Tolstoy’s Ivan had wasted his vacuous life chasing after tawdry bourgeois values. He was so unprepared for death he could not believe it was really he, Ivan Ilyich, who was dying. On the other hand, Ivan, the priest and thinker and inspired critic who passed away in his sleep in Bremen last week, spent his fascinating life avoiding entrapment in the tawdry, the cheap, the shallow, and helping others to do so. And I am sure he was ready when death came. Once when I had coffee with him in Cuernavaca he told me that just the previous week he had passed the night in the basement catacomb of a Franciscan church in Mexico City among the bodies of the dead monks. I was surprised. It sounded a bit lugubrious to me, and he seemed so exuberantly alive, and I told him so. But he shook his long forefinger at me, and told me that was just the point. Embracing life and embracing death are not opposites. They are spiritual compadres, not enemigos. I am sure he was right.

You were one of a kind, Ivan, my friend. I wish the world had taken your advice to heart more than we did. Requiescat in pace.

Harvey Cox is a professor of divinity at Harvard University. His most recent book, Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year, is now available in paperback.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002