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Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Illich in Latin America: Folk Religion vs. Consumer Catholicism

Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky. He has published a paper in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research for Oct., 2012, with the title "Ivan Illich and Leo Mahon: Folk Religion and Catechesis in Latin America."

It's available for reading and downloading at no charge, though registration is required.

Mahon was an American priest who led a mission project in Panama sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1962 to 1980. It was a successful for a time and then, Hartch writes, it "ended in almost complete defeat."

In the early 1960s, the two men admired each other, but over time, as Illich worked to discourage North American priests from heading south to do missionary work in Latin America, they came to disagree. Illich "did not view popular Latin American Catholicism as deficient," Hartch explains, but Mahon did, and he set out to remedy the situation:

… Mahon did not waver in his conviction that beneficial missionary work was possible in San Miguelito and, by extension, throughout Latin America. As early as 1964 he was expressing doubts about the direction of Illich’s center [CIDOC], which was not surprising, since by that time Illich was indeed attempting to discourage many potential missionaries.
Many missionaries built Catholic schools and seminaries and saw staffing and running them as a major part of their ministry, but Mahon, because he believed that most poor Latin Americans did not know even the rudiments of Catholic theology, proposed the primacy of “catechesis,” or in more common language, religious teaching; he was not talking about formal education that takes place in schools, but about the kind of teaching that could take place in the actual Mass and in informal groups that might meet in homes and neighborhood centers. He was not against Catholic schools; he simply believed that they were too expensive and used too much labor to educate a small, often wealthy, minority, when other methods could reach many times more people.

Hartch describes Mahon's work in some detail. He concludes that while "in 1980 most observers would have said Ivan Illich" was "more influential" than Mahon, today it looks like Mahon "won," his "priorities [carrying] the day." It is clear, he writes, that

Mahon’s fundamental conviction that folk Catholicism was not forming moral, committed Catholics and therefore needed to be reformed had been adopted by the Latin American hierarchy and laity. The active and growing segments of the Latin American Catholic Church, with their base ecclesial communities, the charismatic renewal, and movements like Focolare, all agreed that folk Catholicism was not enough.

At another site, The Coming Home Network, Hartch describes his conversion to Catholocism; he'd grown up Episcopalian. Playing a significant part in his move to the R.C. church were several years of research he conducted into Illich's activities in Latin America.

Illich’s impact on me was more complex [than certain other Catholic writers] because his writing sometimes resonated with me and sometimes infuriated me. But I could see something of the same deep truth in his work as well. That Illich could reach me was startling, since I disagreed both with his political views and with his underhanded sabotage of the missionary initiative.

One result of Hartch's research into Illich is a paper, "Ivan Illich and the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America." It, too, was published (in 2009) in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and it is available for reading here. Drawing from several sources, including an article by Illich called "Mission and Midwifery," Hartch describes Illich's work at CIDOC -- his "passionate, ongoing, semi-deceitful crusade against the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America" -- and the controversies it aroused. He admires much about Illich, and especially for his "delicacy, an ability to perceive nuance and to respond with appropriate subtlety." But Hartch concludes that

Illich, for all his learning, had a limited understanding of the dynamics of the missionary encounter. He did not spend much time with missionary letters and journals and reports, all of which show us the deeply transformative nature of missionary experience on the missionary and on the host culture alike. He does not appear to have read Paul's letters with missionary eyes, nor did he give missionary biography the attention that he gave to medieval philosophy or to Latin American anthropology. Ultimately, Illich did not have enough trust in the Gospel message, which can transform cultures regardless of missionary ineptitude and can bring even American missionaries to Pauline humility.

Hartch's CV lists the following items, as well:

“Ivan Illich in Puerto Rico,” Midwest Association of Latin American Studies, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 22 November 2008.

“Anti-Missionary Genius: Ivan Illich's Sabotage of the American Catholic Missionary Effort in Latin America,” Yale-Edinburgh Group for the Study of Missions and World Christianity, Edinburgh, Scotland, 4 July 2008.

“The Strange Origins of a Radical Think Tank: Ivan Illich, Cuernavaca, and the Catholic Church,” Midwest Association of Latin American Studies, St. Louis, 2 November 2007.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.