Starting in 1966, Ivan Illich found himself in escalating conflict with the Vatican. At the time, Illich held the title of Monsignor and he was deeply involved with his CIDOC "thinkery" in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The Church saw CIDOC as highly subversive, mainly because of its sharp criticism of the international development project and the flood of missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers heading from the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere into Latin America.
A detailed account of this conflict has been published by scholars Jon Igelmo Zaldívar and Patricia Quiroga Uceda in the International Journal of Illich Studies. They describe how Illich's publication of two controversial articles, "The Seamy Side of Charity" and "The Vanishing Clergyman" (both appearing later in Illich's Celebration of Awareness), triggered events that eventually led to Illich getting called into a sort of star chamber hearing in a basement room at the Vatican. He kept quiet about this until 1969, when he told newspapers that he essentially had dropped his formal association with the Church.
In 1971, Illich gave a speech to an audience at Rosary College, located in River Forest, Ill. (It has since become known as Dominican University.) His host was a Joel Wells, editor of The Critic - "a Catholic magazine that provided a literary and intellectual bridge between the church's past and its life after the Vatican II reforms of the early 1960s," according to his obituary published in 2001.)
"I am very happy," one hears Illich smiling on a recording of the speech, "to open my mouth again, more or less addressing myself to the problems that face the Church that I love, after four years of silence imposed on me, which I accepted, because of an article I wrote in The Critic." (This was "The Vanishing Clergyman," later to appear in Illich's book, Celebration of Awareness.) He goes on to describe some problems that he believes Christians face in any attempt to "hand on the faith" to a new generation.
A friend recently provided us with a copy of this recording, made from a cassette and titled "The Evolving Church," and we thought we'd transcribe and publish its last few minutes. (We'll try to transcribe more of the talk in coming weeks.) Here, Illich elaborates on his thoughts about de-schooling (his book was a sly criticism of the Church, he admits) and offers a rare glimpse into his own faith. Particularly interesting to anyone familiar with his later work is this discussion's touching on one of the main themes running through what was essentially his last book, The Rivers North of the Future. This is the idea that the Incarnation gets prolonged, if only for a moment, when people come together, or turn to each other, completely freely, with no prompting, guidance, or schooling from an institution, system, or ethical (or ethnic) rules. Illich contrasts this with a Church that he sees as managing itself as yet another industrial producer of services - an insurance company, as he puts it elsewhere, that relieves its customers of the need to live and act as true Christians.
Illich ends his talk with a quite beautiful Aztec poem, one that we've found on several websites concerned with comforting those who are dying and the like:
… therefore, we can see that during the last few decades ... people came to view the Church as one more service institution. This happened in an industrial society in which all goods can be mass-produced according to international standards and services also began to be produced by professionals in professional, standardized institutions providing health, social welfare, education. And the Church provided religious services.
It is important that we understand that the people who today are most concerned with how to hand on the faith are usually concerned on how to make the Church produce those intangible commodities, those institutional outputs which we can now plan by rewriting the catechism or doing anything like that you want, to make sure that even tomorrow its output still will be Catholic -- or faith or teachings.
In this, the Church is caught in the same bind in which the educational system was caught. In fact, just here, talking among friends, mostly fellow Catholics, my only reason, personally, intimately, for moving into an analysis of the the school was in order to provide an analysis for what happened really to the Church. Speaking about the peculiar form the Church, in its most degraded form had taken in our generation as worldwide Catholic obligatory school system.
There is no possibility of handing on a faith through an institution which is designed on an industrial, managerial mode of production. Just as in the field of education we have to ask ourselves how can we provide people who want to learn with the books, or the encounters, or the opportunities they need in order to learn while living a meaningful life, rather than doing what we now do -- provide packaged teachings, education, which is a form of secularized grace for people -- [audience laughs] I can come back to this later on -- so we must ask ourselves how can we provide the things, the events, the persons, to which somebody called by the Lord needs access if he wants to approach Him, leaving it up to the Lord to show those who come after us how this happened in our generation, abdicating, therefore, in this instance, again, both the social science and the Marxist ideals of writing now the history of the future.
The fifth difficulty, therefore, which I find in transmitting the faith, in handing on the faith today, is the industrial mode and structure, the funnel-like mode, structure, and form which the Church has assumed in order to provide the faith which is precisely the contrary to an atmosphere of freedom in which people who want to approach the Lord know that they can go to celebrate in a very traditional and therefore thoroughly trivial form in an ever-new way the encounter with the other in the Lord. Therefore, the parish must become -- the parish, or whatever takes its place, the diocese -- the place, the moment, the space which we by common agreement reserve in this passing world for the commemoration of the Lord by seating [?] as much as we can how traditionally this commemoration was performed.
Let me end here with the prayer I said this morning, in lieu of breviary if you want, because some of you don’t accept the saying of breviary in other forms, but the bishop of Cuernavaca said to us many years ago, well, you can also recite some good poetry. So I recited this morning a poem, again and again, which comes from Stone Age. In Mexico, you realize that the neolithic age lasted until Cortez came, and one great Franciscan, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún -- he should be named the grandfather patron of anthropology because he went around and sometimes copied in Nahuatl language, the language of the Indians, the same poem or the same saying or the same story as it came out of five or ten mouths and then compared them with each other, and he noted down this poem.
Before I translate it for you, I must say this comes from a language, Nahuatl, an Aztec language in which one-third of all roots, of all words, refer to flowers. And it is directed at a god who is the god in whom all have [?] consciousness -- that’s what his name means. But it also means in whose juice all of us grow. You can translate it the way you want. It is directed at him and it says:
Oh, only for so short awhile
You have loaned us to each other
Because we take form in your act of drawing us,
And we take life in your painting us,
And we breath in your singing us.
But only for a short while
You have loaned us to each other
Because even a drawing cut into crystalline obsidian fades
And even the green feathers ["the crown feathers," as Illich explains] of the quetzal bird lose their color
And even the songs of the waterfall die out in the dry season
So we, too,
Because only for a short while you have loaned us to each other.
I wish we could go now to discuss the five different problems which I have tried to present to you for which at this moment it has become so difficult to share the faith now, and such a big problem to hand it on to the future as if we were responsible for it.