It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ivan Illich, Breaking the Silence

We are pleased to present an essay about Ivan Illich written by Fabio Milana, an Italian researcher who has been looking closely at Illich's early years -- from his birth in 1926 to his move to New York City in 1951. He originally wrote this essay to serve as the afterword to the Italian publication of a transcript of The Corruption of Christianity, the CBC broadcast prepared by David Cayley. The transcript was published in 2008. Mr. Milana kindly provided us with an English translation of the essay, written with help from Milena Ibro and Jane Upchurch. Mr. Milana's professional Web page may be viewed here; he is affiliated with the Fondazione per le Science Religiose Giovanni XXIII, located in Bologna. We look forward to seeing the results of his research, which he says will likely be completed this year. (May he excuse us for making some small edits, mainly in the spelling of certain words, and for leaving out the paper's footnotes. A complete copy of the paper is available for downloading from his Web page.)

Ivan Illich, Breaking the Silence

by Fabio Milana

The Corruption of Christianity is the text of the homonymous programme that the Canadian national radio broadcasted, maybe not by chance, in the first few days of the year 2000. Later on, CBC itself put the recordings of the five parts on sale (remarkably, you can find them on the website of a philanthropic organisation) as well as the cerlox-bound transcript, which circulated in Europe as a German translation with parallel text; this Italian one is the first edition of the text as a volume.

It can't be strictly called ‘conversations’, it is more of an assembly of excerpts from the conversations between Ivan Illich and David Cayley (1997 and 1999), connected and organized by the interventions of Cayley himself, in order to create a summary of the huge material he recorded during those sessions. A redactio longior of this same material was authorized by Illich as a consequence of the great interest the radio Corruption aroused, as Cayley relates while publishing it, with the title inspired by Celan’s The Rivers North of the Future (Anansi 2005; the German translation, C.H. Beck 2006, and the French one, Actes Sud 2007, are now available). Not even this latter version is drawn up in ‘conversation’ form, but as themed accounts, given by Illich himself to an interlocutor who withdraws into the paratext: a gesture of implied adhesion, midway between the philosophical interview pattern, the same Cayley used in the large and well-deserving Ivan Illich in Conversation (1992), and the partnership he achieved in this kind of a ‘two voices self-portrait’ which is the Corruption. This confirms the common wavelength gradually reached by the catholic Canadian journalist with a thinker who was programmatically hostile to the mass media.

In any case, a comparison between the two drafts speaks in favour of a kind of effectiveness of our text, which is not just due to the significance of Illich’s ‘own voice’ passages selected here, or to the editor’s qualified interventions, or even to the ‘dramatic’ intensity of the script, resulting from its necessary concision and from the ‘game of roles’ itself. Naturally, Cayley reminds the reader, who has less familiarity with Illich’s intellectual and human story, of its essential parts, which we could recognize in different phases. The first one is the ‘militant’ one, embracing almost three decades from his arrival in New York in 1951 and including his fifteen-year activity in the Centro Intercultural de Formación, later de Documentación (1961-1976), that he founded in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca to support the campaign against the ‘export’ of development to third world countries; during this period, a crisis occurred in his relationship with the Catholic Church, which led to his giving up the sacerdotal functions with their related privileges (1968-1969). The following phase consisted of mainly anthropological-historical studies, taking on a position of critical distance, rooted in his beloved 12th century, in order to reconstruct the origin of modern certainties, the unconscious axioms of a world submitted to an intense and prolonged technological development; this latter period began in 1978 as a consequence of something similar to an ‘existential breakdown’, according to some witnesses very near to him, and ended fifteen years later with texts of a summarizing nature like the essay collection In the mirror of the past (1992), the retrospective Conversation mentioned above, and the last one in his own hand, the comment on Ugo di San Vittore In the vineyard of the text (1993): inside this work, that has an almost elegiac intonation, for the first and last time Illich recognizes himself too, personally and not in a polemic way, as participating in a typically modern adventure, the ‘bookish text’, which is closed between the two watersheds that forever divide it from the lectio divina of monastic tradition and the era of digital screens. About a possible third phase of Illich’s research, our Corruption documents the most important paths in its three central chapters: the survey on the origin of some modern ‘categories of the political’ from the Christian thought and praxis in the late Middle Ages; the study of the experience of the sight inside a project on a ‘history of the body’, aimed at the affirmed contemporary disappearance of the living and sentient flesh; the ethical problem in a world that has lost a substantial notion of limit, and of the ontological order established by it. Here, though not chiefly here, also lies the newness and the interest of our text.

The point is rather that Cayley manages to insert these recent enquiries effectively, as well as some of their remote premises, in the prospective frame formed by the two side chapters, inscribing thus the outermost moment of Illich's story inside a radical interrogation, of a radically ‘religious’ nature. Precisely the comparison with the 1992 Conversation highlights the different pronunciation of previous themes, and generally an explicit torsion of Illich’s thought; and this allows Cayley to speak about a “testament of Ivan Illich”, the same way he did in The Rivers North of the Future: a qualification that can also be applied to this Corruption of Christianity, on the basis of its title itself. In fact, in the foreground of both the texts there is a reading of Modernity that intersects, but at the same time rejects, the most consolidated interpreting paradigms of this ‘world's age’: going from the one that understands it as a secularized evolution of Christian categories to the opposite one that reveals the denial and the upsetting of that inheritance, to the last one that excludes or even minimizes ab origine the relationship between the two ‘constellations’. Illich explains Modernity as an essential betrayal of the gospel message, which evolved later on by following independent lines of force, being unaware of a drama not his own: and therefore liable to be analysed and discussed sua iuxta et propria principia, as the author demonstrated during two decades; but a betrayal which the Church itself made possible and substantially prefigured, by attempting to be faithful to that announcement, to make it real, to ensure it firm roots in social organisation as well as in individual consciences. It is in line with this reading, and with the ambivalence it throws on the ‘process’ we're considering, that we have chosen here the Italian word pervertimento to render the concept; more than that, the paradoxical nature that the whole process takes on, is derived from such an ambivalence. A reading that actually places Western history inside the coordinates of Church history, and thereby right in the middle of holy history, can't but see an inexplicable dynamism in that corruption: the mystery of an anti-christian parabola of the historical Christianity and of the world that comes from it: the corruptio optimi pessima – that “corruption which is Christianity”, the way Illich expressed himself too, according to some witnesses. But on the other hand, the deep incarnationism of his perspective, firstly spiritual more than theological, redeems and rather over-invests human history as the unique scene of the holy drama. Although Illich has always emphasized, even in his own activity, the distinction of tasks and roles, language and method, between politician and clergyman, theologian and historian, reason and faith, these players don't operate on separate levels or within different dimensions: they converge on the same object, they definitively insist on the same ground; so that Erich Fromm wasn't so wrong in illustrating the first of Illich’s books, Celebration of Awareness (1970), under the banner of a “humanistic radicalism”. For a parallel reason, the Pauline ‘mystery of evil’ (if it really concerns the corruptio Illich has diagnosed) is not the subject matter of any esoteric speculation, nor of any specialized intellectual performance: it’s rather a problem we are daily, existentially, historically faced with, as men and as believers, in the age that has taken the degeneration of the Gospel to its last consequences. The ultimate originality of the Illichian interpretation, which doesn't lie in his individual topics nor, in toto, in their ‘system’, first of all rests on the direct, personal, passionata testimony he has left us: the theological question on why this corruption happened, the historical one on how, the ethical one on what to do in such a climate that, after all, gets its apocalyptic tone from this living strain itself. Here you also find a feature of closeness, the most significant although not the only one, with “my Sergio Quinzio”: a name whose memory will be difficult for the Italian reader to avoid.

Many circumstances suggest that it is mainly in this sense that we should speak of a ‘testament’. Lee Hoinacki, a former Dominican friar whose life is indissolubly interlaced with Illich's (among other reasons, for the common daily practice of the breviary, which they often shared; but above all for the forty-year-long midwifery with his friend's thought), has testified to Illich’s “terrible pain” because of

“the inability to say what he wanted to say: about the corruptio optimi, the mysterium iniquitatis, the relationship between these two realities, their respective relationships to the world and to the Church, and the interrelationships of all these complex cultural/historical/ecclesiastical, divine affairs. In our long conversations on these themes, the struggle and frustration were evident”.

An open letter written to David Ramage tells us that a volume on this topic was planned and partially ready almost by the end of the ’80s; we can only guess the theological difficulties that lie at the basis of the subsequent hesitations, while we have more consistent traces of their practical reasons. In any case, Illich seems to go beyond the block of an ensemble of ‘resistances’ only after Cayley's intelligent provocation takes the persuasions out of his mouth, that uncertainties and sickness would predictably have stopped him from putting down in words. In June 2001 in front of Oakland Table’s diversified audience, which met for Hospitality and Pain, he proposes his interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, a central locus in his denunciation of a millenarian, tragic misunderstanding. Jerry Brown, a man of Jesuit background and a friend of Illich’s since the time of his governorship in California, as well as promoter of the above-mentioned meeting being the mayor of Oakland, remembers how on that occasion Illich wanted to meet the archbishop of the city, in order

“to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early Church and the evolution – as he saw it – of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services [...] He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left”.

Something similar happened a month later in San Rossore, during a convention called in view of the infamous Genoa G8 summit: this time in order to question a part of the opening speech of Msgr. Plotti, the archbishop of Pisa, for betraying an universalistic conception of the neighbour. A year later, in May, Illich returns to the same themes in Camaldoli in front of the catholic ‘anti-globalization’ associations; in July he forcedly interpolates the Samaritan in the intentionally slanted answers to an interview that “La Stampa” later decided to no longer publish; in September, in Città di Castello, speaking at a convention on the almost imminent ‘pre-emptive war’, he assigns the modern program of ‘rooting out evil’ from the world to the original corruption of the ‘love commandment’. When he is found dead in his office in Kreftingstrasse, the Bremen house that welcomes him and his closest collaborators during his teaching periods at the local University, on 2nd December of the same year (2002), Illich is surrounded by the papers he is using to prepare the seminar on the corruptio optimi that he has finally decided to do the following week-end. For that occasion, Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski, both of them very near to him, refer that he “had hoped with friends and students to reflect on his ideas on the ecclesiastical origin of uniquely Western certainties”.

Referring to such “ideas” in front of an audience of Catholic philosophers gathered in Los Angeles in March '96, Illich had said:

“in this company they are trivial. They were not trivial, you can be sure, on those tightropes on which I had to do my balancing act as a teacher. When speaking in Philadelphia or Bremen, I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy. I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist – or worse, a Catholic theologian; I do not have that mission. Therefore, I did not relate the unprecedented characteristics of the modern artifact to the new commandment recorded by St. John, but to the philia traditionally understood as the flowering of politeia”.

The friends in Bremen, as well as the reader of these pages, have the appropriate tools at their disposal to correctly evaluate the unique meaning Illich assigned to a renewed exercise of the classical philia. It is also explicitly theorized in his 1998 Bremen speech, when he was awarded the Prize for Culture and Peace by the Hanseatic town. But still at that time, or at least in that particular circumstance, it can be said that the junction between philia and conspiratio (the liturgical practice of the primitive Christian Church, in his opinion starting a radically new kind of politeia) deprives this latter of its polemical and prophetic potential. We can then trust the tightrope walker in front of the Catholic philosophers,

“with one foot […] on my home ground in the tradition of Catholic philosophy […] my other foot [...] heavy with mud clots and scented by exotic herbs through which I have tramped”;
at the same time, we ought to allow for his perturbation due to that encounter: “twenty-five years ago, I promised Pope Paul VI to abstain from talking to groups of priests or nuns. This is the first time since that I face a Catholic association”. Actually Illich’s ‘promises’ had been more structured and binding: since March '68, in front of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had one-sidedly “suspended the public celebration of the Holy Mass, the publishing of articles concerning theology, public conferences on the same subject, preaching at retreats etc.”, specifying to cardinal Seper the following June:
“It's my intention to maintain this reserve as long as there remains a doubt or reservation in the mind of the Superiors about me – even if it is totally groundless […] The munus sacerdotale is a free gift of God through the Church: although it remains indelible, in my opinion it should really only be exercised in the fullness of the communion and even of the trust of the Church itself. The clerical state and its powers and duties of external representation of the ecclesiastic institutions are not as indelible and they are strictly conditioned by the Church’s recognition: I don’t feel I should exercise them if the Church does not trust me fully and if it thinks it cannot recognize itself, even for temporary and disputable reasons, in my orientations and attitudes contingent and related to a certain historical situation. Quod gratis ab Ecclesia accepi, semper gratis renunciabo”.

As we can ascribe these words to a deep and mature sensus Ecclesiae, likewise for the “reserve” Illich maintained almost to the end of his life: his refusal to consider himself in partibus infidelium, having the duty to discharge an apologetic mission, and at the same time the experience of an exile condition, the feeling of being a stranger in the territories he had chosen as his own ‘paroikìa’ – a condition and feeling he will discover as a presupposition for neo-testamentary charity as well as for his own ‘vocation to friendship’ itself. If that is true, and if it casts a dramatic chiaroscuro on the ‘testament’ later dictated to Cayley and eventually ‘shouted from the rooftops’, this obliges us on the other hand to reverify the whole intellectual production which comes after '68. This is a relatively uncommon task: during Illich’s life, for example in the Festschrift his friends put together for his 70th birthday and published in 2002, maybe in observation of and perhaps for emphasis on his ‘apophatic’ behaviour, maybe for a greater involvement in other directions of research he had tirelessly fed (in effect Challenges of Ivan Illich is the title of the volume, edited by Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham), his ‘theological challenge’ is perceived as being aligned or subordinated to other ones, more often in the external margin than in the centre or at the origin of his thought. Reintegrated in this position by Valentina Borremans and Jean Robert in the foreword of the Fayard edition of the Oeuvres complètes, it returns to the background in occasion of the posthumous Perte des sens, which notwithstanding encloses the decisive texts. Some significant testimonies, e.g. the ones we have mentioned before, filtered through the Bremen commemorations of February 2003, through the contributions that appeared in “Whole Earth” in the spring of the same year, through the Lucca convention of the following June and through the commemorations of Claremont in 2004, preferably move backstage of the ‘apophatic’ interpretation. Meanwhile others (Cayley firstly and most actively, in Italy Giannozzo Pucci and Franco La Cecla) have intended to render the “ultimate motive” of Illichan research explicit, identifying it in that core of wounded faith to be investigated also in the works which seem very far away from it at first glance: the pamphlets that went around the world in the '70s and interfered with the international political agenda, giving a contribution to the ‘counter-cultures’ of alternative movements.

Titles like De-schooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), Energy and Equity (1974), Medical Nemesis (1976) and many others, have enjoyed a wide reception, free from controversialistic implications, actually devoid of explicitly religious auras; and with good reason we should add. Only retrospectively, and only addressing other Catholics, the philosophers in Los Angeles, Illich could say:

“I analyzed schooling as the secularization of a uniquely Catholic ritual because I wanted to grasp the mystery of the corruptio optimi. I went into the history of hospitality and care to oppose the Church-initiated sterilization of charity through its institutionalization as service. I wrote on the degeneration of water into H2O as an instance of the disintegration of bodies and the dissolution of sacramental matter. I got myself into deep trouble with a pamphlet, Gender, on the social history of duality and its corrosion by sexuality. I wrote that piece, driven by love for Our Lady who gave birth to that Brother through whom my fraternity with ... well, a guy like Mitcham is subsumed in the mystery of the Trinity. In writing these books, I found the same mysterious pattern repeated again and again: A gift of grace was transformed into a modern horror: over and over, the corruptio optimi quae est pessima”.

Maybe we should not overestimate this late self-exegesis, despite its coherence with what comes out from his speeches in Chicago, held for the first time after a long period in front of a Christian audience (of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with the permission of the Catholic cardinal of the diocese), already by the end of the ’80s, in addresses like Hospitality and Pain (1987), Educational Enterprise in the Light of Gospel (1988), The Construction of a New Fetish: Human Life (1989): in these extraordinary texts, Illich’s non-written book is clearly outlined; but here he is at the peak of his ten-year long engagement as a historian and genealogist of Modernity, and it seems imprudent to reduce the outcome of this research to evidence already acquired in the previous phase of his vita activa. What rather undeniably acts in this latter, although not on the surface of the texts, is the continuity with an ecclesiological reflection already attested since the end of the '50s. In the fight against compulsory schooling, against the medical establishment which “has become a major threat to health”, against all the “disabling professions”, that requisition the traditional forms of human self-determination to advantage castes of “experts, administrators, planners”, it will undoubtedly be possible to record the agreement with the contemporary criticism of bureaucracies totalitarianism (his much admired Orwell, the theoreticians of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the '50s, the Frankfurt ‘sociologists’ of alienation, the political scientists of the Jewish-German diaspora in America etc.). But it appears to be much more pertinent to underline the heritage of texts by Msgr. Illich ipsius, like The Vanishing Clergyman (1959-1967), well-known in that period, also to the Holy Office, but later and until today overshadowed by the best-sellers of the '70s. Though in these texts, as a consequence and as a homage to the self-suspension from the Ecclesia docens, Illich appears to do nothing else but move and extend, to directly adjoining territories (knowledge, health), a ‘theology of secularization’ in whose name he had already previously contested “the current idea of the priest as the Church’s basic representative in the world”, or rather the same need of a professional clergy; he had welcomed a humanity finally come of age, produced by the ‘affluent society’, and he had invoked “the ordination of adult, self-supporting men” to head Christian communities to be called up on an elective basis rather than on an administrative-territorial one; he had contested privileges (precisely the monopoly on priesthood) and features (such as separate training in seminaries, or a celibacy of more a legal than a charismatic nature) of a holy order bound to disappear, in its hierarchic figure, together with the millennium that had seen it blossom. It concerned the same moral minority – granted by the caste benefits and ordered to another moral minority, the one of a ‘flock’ devoted to ignorance and obedience – which is now desecrated by Illich in the institutions assigned to the secular salvation of individuals who have been preliminarily divested of their capacity to be enough for themselves and to tolerate the non-saved substance of the human condition. From Deschooling Society:

“Since Bonhoeffer contemporary theologians have pointed to the confusions now reigning between the Biblical message and institutionalized religion. They point to the experience that Christian freedom and faith usually gain from secularization”.

The attack on worldwide religion of health and education, on their ‘radical monopoly’, is deep-rooted in a recent theological tradition that has separated and contrasted fides and religio, has reduced the latter within purely anthropological limits, and expunged it from a ‘disenchanted’ world where it can survive only as a regression or mystification; in this second case, by assuming the form of idolatry, an abusive management of the transcendent having the pretension to “do what God cannot, namely, manipulate others for their own salvation”. On the contrary, the convivial society Illich outlines in his more ‘political’ manifesto, appears prefigured from his model of church as a network of small diakonìai, emancipated from the clergy-and-laity structure, self-sufficient on a sacramental level – anticipating here the notion of a ‘convivial tool’. As for the concept of counter-productivity, that is a mould for the idea of corruptio optimi pessima, more than a foreboding can be picked up in Illichian polemic when he highlighted “the evangelical and social contradictions in the bureaucracy” inside the Church: a huge system born with the aim to evangelize the world, did not evangelize it any more, and in the meantime overturned the evangelical message itself.

With all that, we do not want to imply that those who through time have taken Illich's practical indications seriously (about education systems for instance, or sanitary praxis, sustainable development and reduction in consumption, defense of cultural diversity and peace, or ‘peaces’, construction) have understood little or badly. The technical-administrative systems Illich questioned in these texts weren’t veiled allegories of the Catholic Church: the attention he reserves to the historical-social sphere has autonomous reasons and very firm roots in its religious thought, organically indebted, on this point, to Emmanuel Mounier’s ‘tragic optimism’. In the humanity that has come of age, as well as in the world that has come out from a millenarian immobilism, according to him “a non-thematic awareness of the significance of the incarnation emerges: an ability to say one great ‘Yes’ to the experience of life”, that is to “man's race to maturity”, to his “inventing the future”. The “new era” that opened will cause “the end of privilege and license”, that's his auspice at least, but the young Illich doesn’t seem interested in prefiguring its shapes and results in the abstract. This is, if anything, the office of the “secular religions” with their unavoidable “ideological rationalizations” and their just as unavoidable differences, conflicts, failures. That’s a price which can be paid in exchange for the astonishing vision of a universal mobilization of mankind, the coming into sight of a sort of a ‘transcendental unity’, so to say, potentially acting in the ‘joint presence’ of everybody in the “change”, beyond the different experiments, models, ideals; it is this, in “radically humanist” terms, that “realization of the kingdom” which the development is aimed at, and which is the embodied Christ already present in the Church. The “Kingdom of Christ” would be thus the free and shared taking charge of its own destiny by a grown-up humanity, without the burden of a determined content to be performed, or of a model of society to be privileged. This excludes that any over-ordered authority, least of all the Church, take on the task to promote and orient the “change”. The task of the Church is rather to discern the consequences on the “human hearth”, intended as that of an individual man; but to discern them in a communitarian way: it is exactly the “celebration of awareness”, it accompanies the human adventure, respecting its freedom and contemplating its mystery. So that the Christian difference in the world can be summed up in the beautiful sentence: “two hear the same story, but one gets the point”. (Please note: there is only one story and only one point; but these two entities, being reciprocally like the whole and the part, are never coextensive.) Maybe it is the ironic realization of how much the new secular institutions offend human freedom, and of which obscure mythical-sacred powers are acting in the religio of development, that induces Illich to openly laugh at them; this concerned, by extension, a Church unable to share the by now solitary ‘awareness’ of its son, and so to address the same criticism to itself, but it doesn’t mean that it definitely was his first or final target. Analogies and chronologies are well known to Illich, but the decisive step is wanting: the explicit recognition of a direct filiation between Church and Modernity, institutionalization of the evangelical message and technical-bureaucratic alienation of life; maybe because he hadn’t lost hope yet that secularization processes in progress would produce the antibodies for both of these pathologies. However, the assumption of an anti-institutional attitude and the choice in favour of powerlessness are explicit in both cases, which has not always been captured by the activistic audience of the Illichan word. In fact institution is refused by Illich as aimed at nothing but power; and power is by its very nature counter-productive, as aimed at itself, at its own maintenance and growth, which, once beyond some critical thresholds, cannot but enter into collision with the goal it claims to be the means to. That which in political language seems to correct the ‘personalist revolution’ in an anarchical sense, in the language of faith will be simply pronounced: in this world, power is only demoniacal, even when it assures (or precisely because it assures: but it really cannot assure at all) education, health, freedom of movement etc. Fortunately, the powerless are always with us – they are, as the old comforted Illich will say, the great majority of mankind contemporaneous with us. To be repeated: no spiritualist temptation, no ‘in-political’ inclination in the trivial meaning of the term, in this attitude: militating the incarnation of the Word does not permit that; only, it doesn’t allow the fight and and the victory against the Ruler of this world with the means of this latter: it rather predisposes for a mysteriously fertile failure. As far as this evangelical radicalism is concerned, we should consider the most recent link inside the chain which transmits it to us: the family of the Little Brothers of Jesus: the most important order of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the war, Illich judged it, the same way he spoke about their initiator René Voillaume as fundamental for his training in the ’50s. The propensity towards hidden life, not ‘religiously’ qualified, is in Illich a Foucauldian one; as well as the explicit appreciation of a form of contemplation exercised like workers of the lowest level; the choice not to serve the last ones but to join their ranks, or at least to join their same point of view: in brief, the sharing of the human condition by renouncing each form of distinction, direction, correction. If this has not been visibly his forma vivendi, such has been, more or less, his vision of the Church as much as, in another sense, of the ‘political’ action – and maybe the spirit of his long stay in partibus.

How this ‘militant’ conception evolved, and most of all, why it reached the kataphasis of the ‘Testament’ at the height of the '90s is a question on which more than one hypothesis can be made. First of all, biographical reasons can be invoked, also belonging to his intellectual biography: the ‘existential breakdown’ at the end of the '70s, which we don’t know much about, is most likely related to the acquired awareness that the technical-scientific civilization targeted by him actually feeds on these contestations, in order to operate more and more refined, tentacular subsumptions of the individual freedom; whence the necessity to radically and totally distance oneself, so as to challenge the very grounds of a world by then judged as impracticable – and to do this from a position not only of retreat from public life, but also of absence and independence from its entire symbolic universe. That also entailed, on a spiritual level, a commitment to new forms of ascesis, in place of or in addition to the ‘classical’ ones; on that front Illich is called in fact to give the most exacting testimony: the fatal illness which affects his jowl, and which he refuses to cure in order not to hand over his own body – meaning his own embodied humanity – to the technical management of the institution in charge. Maybe it is not insignificant that the outline of the book he only announced, and which constitutes the incunabulum of his ‘testament’, belongs to the years '87-'89, together with the Chicago speeches: that is, when the life expectancy given to him by the ‘specialist’ expires, and before entering – if it is legitimate to conjecture – a virtual condition of being posthumous, publicly certified by the evident neoplasia that disfigures “one of the most beautiful faces of the planet”, it has been said, and that also torments him with pain, sharpening his gaze at the same time. Moreover, we are required to put forward context-related reasons for the evolution of Illichian thought. After all, we are speaking of a man who in 1961 had made sure he was ready for his battle station against the White House - Vatican developmentalist and anti-Castrian crusade in Latin America, thus inaugurating the decade of a ‘critical going-through’ the so-called affluent society; a man who at the height of '71 had already struck, in the school system, the trend of capitalism to reconvert itself in the direction of the services sector; a man who could foresee in 1973 the energy crisis of the following years, including the unexpected possibilities to deviate the already written course of ‘development’; lastly a man who captured, towards the end of the same decade, the paradigm leap, even in a social sense, which was implicit in the Systems theory as well as in the computer revolution. It is hardly surprising for such a curriculum if he promptly perceived the closing of a possible dialectics inside the Western world on the turn around of the ’80s; and ten years later, if he attempted to supply a relevant elaboration of the first steps of the ‘global era’, which generated a lot of ‘apocalyptic literature’ close to the first Gulf War. And certainly Illich didn’t remain uninterested in the rescued public and political role of religions on the international scene, and in particular, in the West, in the renewed activism of the Catholic Church on the uncommon ground of encounter and crash established by the concept of ‘life’, which he considered aberrant to the limits of apostasy. And we could go even further, in badly lit territories, placed on the crossroads between history and psychology.

A fissure to reach these recesses is opened by the letter to Hellmuth Becker, which served ten years later as an introibo to the funeral of Illich himself.

“The 2000-year epoch of Christian Europe is gone. That world has passed, into which our generation was born. Not only to the young but also for us, the old, it has become incomprehensible, impalpable. The old have always remembered better times, but that is no excuse for us, who were alive during the regimes of Stalin, Roosevelt, Hitler and Franco, to forget the farewell to the world we lived through [...] We, the seventy years old, can be unique witnesses, not only for names but also for perceptions that no one knows any more.”

Alongside the novelty of the register he uses, partially due to the literary genre, we should underline the date: 1992, one year after the end of USSR and of the ‘short 20th century’, the first one of an age triumphantly welcomed as ‘the end of history’.

“What had been propaganda in the Nazi Period and could be undermined by hearsay, is now being sold – as a Menu with the computer program or with the insurance policy; as counseling for education, bereavement or cancer treatment; as group therapy for those affected. We old ones belong to the generation of pioneers of that non-sense. We are the last of that generation who helped to transform the systems of development, communication and services into a worldwide need.”

The transition is achieved and even the last fragment of the past disappears from the sight of a man that had been establishing such a deep but at the same time such a problematic relationship with the dimension of ‘place’, ‘root’, with the experience accumulated by generations and codified as an art of living. The Illichian apologia of the ‘vernacular values’ evokes, in contrast, his origin from the broken Hapsburg crucible (“crawling with undefinable nationalities”, a paper of Opus Dei branded him with infamy); the choice of a cosmopolitan belonging such as the Roman Church, through whose reticulum the young priest moved horizontally, going to live in three continents; the self-exile from this Church, the search for an impossible Chinese or Indian naturalization, the precarious shelter on the margins of the international scientific community. But it evokes in contrast also some of his gestures of abrupt and definitive break, almost a repetition of an original shock (“as a boy, [I] had felt exiled in Vienna, because all my senses were longingly attached to the South, to the blue Adriatic, to the limestone mountains in the Dalmatia of my early childhood”): like, at the age of twelve, some days before the Anschluss, the irrevocable decision not to “give children to the old tower on the Dalmatian Island”; or his entering a seminary in 1945, a choice that remained unprocessed, at least out loud, so as to radiate a proto-existentialist aura like the one emanating from the same choice, in the same years, made by the young Lorenzo Milani; or again, in 1951, on arriving in New York, the exploration of the barrio and the love at first sight – decisive, definitive – for the Puerto Rican immigrant community. The same drastic nature also belongs to some unheard affirmations he made, such as the illustration of the vow of chastity as the choice “to live now the absolute poverty every Christian hopes to experience at the hour of death”; and to his silences, the above-mentioned ones, and those that have been only alluded to, never interrupted, maybe the really determinant ones: whose names are Hiroshima or Auschwitz, as primary scenes of a universe of technique already unfolded in its power (Hoinacki alludes to that in a discreet way when he sets Illich, a Jew on his mother's side, between Paul Celan and Primo Levi). Now we should ask what happens in a life up to that point suspended over risk and uprooting – or let’s say more precisely: over a transition – when, behind and around such a life, the figure of this world passes away, and the network of references learnt by heart, to which the air balance of the tightrope walker is trusted, gets lost. Shouldn't we at least wait for him to dramatically get in contact with the earth again, for an ultimate face-to-face encounter? Perhaps on a sheltered patch of earth. “I would like to come to die in your parish church”, thus Illich only answered don Achille Rossi, who put forward some future involvements in Città di Castello to him, a few weeks before his death.

In a ‘philosophical existence’ no detail is unworthy of attention; but finally, it is the inner thought movement that we should ask for discriminating corroboration. As a historian and philosopher Illich is, in the '80s, most promptly a protagonist of the debate on Modernity, which rose up at sunset, when a famous report by Lyotard to the government of Quebec had already filled out the death certificate. Illichian research, as we have seen, is qualified as a research on transcendentals, the non-reflected assumptions of thought and even perception in the Modern era; what characterizes it, for example if compared to Foucault’s, is not so much the ability to penetrate, i.e. to provide an organic, ‘structural’ description of a certain ‘mental world’, than the ability to distance oneself, i.e. to catch and bring out differences, the fracture or the chain of fractures, ‘epistemic’ as well as ‘sensory’, that lead to the present or move back from it. Especially under this historical and comparative profile, his contributions generally seem to be not only relevant but frankly surprising; while under a philosophical profile we should recognize that they, as well as those of the ‘gloomy Calvinist’ Jacques Ellul whom they expressly refer to, appear after all as the development or deepening of some classical acquisitions of early twentieth-century thought (a title among others, the 1938 Heidegger essay on Die Zeit des Weltbildes). Their trait of originality – abstracting from the ‘practical’ implications of which his research is more generous – lies rather in the level of metadiscours, meaning the level it is possible for Illich to trace, evading (but how?) the transcendentals of his own age, and where it becomes possible for him to situate and evaluate the discontinuities: the rising of new assumptions, their passage to the status of axioms, their becoming obsolete etc. If we namely ask what the assumption of this knowledge on the assumptions is, we will find for example that, in his case, it is not the pre-categorical immediateness of the Lebenswelt, or the learning of an ‘ontological difference’ that always exceeds a given ‘coming-about’ of being. For Illich it consists in a knowledge that proceeds from a revelation. It is the news, received by faith, of an original fracture that makes all the following ones possible, assigns them a sense, allows them to be judged: the Incarnation of the Word. A before and an after, a movement principle as such, the opening of a novelty – a possibility, a freedom – in the immobile corpus of the peoples’ wisdom, is produced only by this ‘event’, which not for nothing constitutes the beginning and end of Illichian intelligence of Christianity. For him, Creation and Redemption are contents of faith that only Revelation, as God’s word becoming historical flesh, takes away from the mythological dimension with which they occur in other religious traditions. Creation for example “through the Incarnation will perdure. It has a beginning. It is not eternal like God, but it has no end”: it has no end because it is perpetuated under new skies and new earth by Incarnation; and because this latter too continues endlessly: in charity, namely, righteously intended as an unheard relation between a me and you that are absolutely singular, coinciding with their irremediable soma, their flesh divinized by Incarnation: consequently divine themselves, and so perpetually creators of novelty. On the other hand, the glory of the human that Incarnation institutes brings Resurrection with it in an implicit way:

“only God’s flesh is capable of resurrecting, of being resurrected; and I am destined for resurrection, hopefully on the right side, precisely because I’m enfleshed through my acts of charity, and through my doxological celebration of the enfleshment”.

The wound that the very idea of a creatio ex nihilo entails for the eternity of the physis, or the wound that Resurrection inflicts on the motionless necessity of the natural laws, are of no particular relevance for Illich: they lack the inaugurating power of the Gospel, the very ‘leap of the paradigm’, the passing (not simply ‘ethical’, but mystical if anything – messianic) to a realized supernatural condition, able to transvaluate in every sense the traditional forms of living, single or associated, by introducing a freedom ‘foreign and unknown’ to every other historical-symbolic constellation. It is not by chance if the core of the Gospel seems to him to be the crucifixion, intended not as the restorative sacrifice of a perturbed order, but on the contrary: the elevation of Jesus, his exclusion from the earth and the community, from the ethnos and from its ethos – the break of every order (and the imitatio of this anarchic as well as tightrope-walker Christ is probably the secret cipher of his spiritual biography). Desecration and liberation: this is precisely Illich's Gospel, and here lie the roots of the extraordinary seriousness of existence the way he perceives it at the light of Incarnation – one eye on the Guardini of his graduation thesis, the other on the Bonhoeffer of his own maturity.

But the ‘metadiscours’ which just unravels from the assumption of incarnation of the Word doesn't retain the highly dialectical character of this latter. The original krisis it represents is processed by Illich according to a perspective of philosophia perennis, the fixed and declared term of so much of his ‘roaming’ as we have already seen. Beyond every messianic fracture, in line with the teaching of his master Maritain and of his ever favourite Thomas, the ancient formula of gratia naturam perficit, for instance, doesn’t lose validity for him; which is possible only on the basis of a dynamic cosmos-anthropology – claiming an essential evolutionary step right at the stage of Incarnation – variously widespread in the generation which foregoes and prepares the Council. It will be noticed, for example, that in Illich there is no sign of a ‘pure’ nature: natura always showing itself as signata by interpretation, as a ‘second nature’, the hexis of a determined historical-anthropological tradition; on which the newness of the Gospel will in fact intervene catastrophically, but prefiguring, on the other hand, an unprecedented glorification of the kosmos and creature as pronounced in that same ‘vernacular’. This is a problematic junction for Illichian thought, but able to compel it, at the same time, to its most original intuitions: for example see the pages on ‘contingency’, or the analysis of how the immeasurableness of Christian freedom, analogous with the totally new relationship between Logos and Sarx revealed by the incarnation of the Word, is called to create, through theological love, a new and continuously renewed ‘proportionality’: between Judean and Samaritan, characteristically, or in exercising a philìa freed from the limits of the polis. It is to be acknowledged that, from a distance, these elaborations appear consistent with what he had already been theorizing in the ’70s under the heading ‘conviviality’ and, more in general, with the idea of a ‘sustainable’ development, thanks to which free human kind could drive the ancient orders without dissipating their ‘human scales’: when, for a moment, his proposal faced on one hand the rising tide of the theology of liberation, on the other hand the fast rappel à l'ordre of post-conciliar Catholicism, and before the tenuous spirit of prophecy of '68 could be reabsorbed into more lasting but more short-ranging ideological frameworks. In fact, on the contrary, those speculations seem to be reparative and belated, suggested more from the urgency of understanding how and why the evangelical message failed in Western History, when by that time the triumph of technique had shown an enigmatic hetero-genesis of ends at work. The above-mentioned supernatural anthropology is exposed to the ‘replies’ which could arise from the historical dimension, precisely because it takes this latter seriously and embodies it in itself. And we could consider, in this sense, the twofold and non-contradictory development of post-conciliar theology: its secularizing outcome (the ‘insurance company’, as Illich calls it) or rather, if we read the signs of the times more pessimistically, the fundamentalist backlash. These are apparently the two stages of Illichian reflection too: the ‘radically humanist’ and the following blatantly ‘anti-modern’ one; but without the corresponding drifts: ethical reduction on one side, secession of identity on the other. It can be said that Illich was a priori immunized from them because his central issue was not the Church-World relationship; this is why updates, conflicts and conciliations in this field couldn’t be atop his agenda. His topic was rather the invisible in Mary's womb, and the whole horizon of human history in all its dimensions, in their reciprocal relationship. So it is human history, in all its dimensions, that he questions; and it is the mystery of Incarnation that he goes back to, in order to understand and evaluate the dramatically regressive ‘anthropological mutation’ which present times ‘sign’.

What emerges from this inquiry, according to the diagnosis gradually formed during the ’80s, is substantially a reversed course of the historia salutis. It is not the free, gratuitous convenientia in the relationship with the transcendent as well as among human beings, on the model of incarnation of the Word, that Illich recognizes but, on the contrary, the radical breakdown of every proportio. So that contemporary reality seems summarizable in him by the image of the blind techno-bureaucratic power directly commensurated with the quivering flesh of the Haftling, this latter deprived of everything and ready to receive, with the serial number, the seal of an accomplished subsumption into the system. If this is a man: if this is what remains of the person’s dignity and freedom when Logos and Sarx split up, and no more than the ‘bare life’ is left, at the mercy of the alienating power of the modern artifact (which included here its ‘conceptual’ versions: e.g., the abstract ‘life’ of recent Catholic preaching, in perfect agreement with the living being’s manipulation techniques which it dreams of thwarting). Almost developing a theorem in full, already sketched out in the Benjaminian Trauerspiel, Illich comes to point out how the transmogrification produced by the regime of technique, as a radical disincarnation, is nothing but the furthest outcome of a spiritualization process, whose widespread ‘materialism’ would only be the visible waste, the by now perfectly ‘dia-bolic’ correlate: the current biologism, for example, or the crazed dynamics of desire, and more in general that mechanism of technical production of needs for their technical satisfaction in a scarcity regime, which is our present-day glorification of homo oeconomicus. But Illich's nagging worry in the ’90s is mainly the evidence, in his eyes, that this spiritualization, though void and fetishistic, would be unthinkable without the premise of the incarnation of Logos. So Grace reappears in its originally nihilistic side, which he had tried in vain to compensate through the doctrine of a new and free ‘proportionality’ to nature-tradition. Once the previous and underlying ‘natural’ bonum is made movable, and so endangered, the same ‘supernatural’ optimum is prepared for a possible corruption, when the very object on which it exercised its prerogatives, and which acted as a constraint, an anchoring to the earth, deteriorates or gets disfeatured. In this case supernatural freedom doesn’t simply get lost, it actually persists, but insofar as perverted: no longer a ‘lengthening’ of Incarnation, in the discrete and contingent shapes of charity, intended via a pure analogia fidei – but incorporated, or rather disembodied, in depersonalizing institutes and apparatuses, which should make it independent from the risk of contingency, but which thereby turn it into a different kind of necessity. ‘Necessity’ is like saying religio: the subtle balance between incarnationism and secularization, ‘intrinsicism’ and dialectic theology, which characterizes Illichan thought, shatters in the impact with the ‘Techno-Moloch’ grown in the womb of the Christian world up to ‘imperial’ sizes. Hence a tactical retreat, in Illich's late anti-modern preaching, almost with the intent to restore the mechanisms and the structure of classical soteriology, in whose language, notwithstanding, the problem he poses can't actually be formulated, and the mysterium iniquitatis is found to be still intact in the provocative quality of its primeval appearance.

How indeed is the counter-productivity of a gift of grace to be conceived? How is a history of salvation to be told, when at the end of modernity it results in the specularly opposite outcome – the anti-christian one – with respect to the evangelical promises? At this point, and in a certain sense only at this point of Illich’s historical and theoretical journey, the intermediate term emerges: the Church. It is the Church that Illich indicts for treason: partly the Constantinian Church, then mostly the Gregorian one, finally the Tridentine one and last but not least the contemporary one, pre- as well as post-conciliar – recognizing in it the nest from which the Antichrist took his conquering flight. He accuses the Church in its more ancient stages, for having given birth, although at different levels of intensity, to the aberrant project of edifying a ‘Christendom’ (but this term is lacking in Illich’s vocabulary; he symptomatically epitomizes its meaning in the sole word ‘Christianity’); in more recent ones, for not having acknowledged and condemned the sub-products of that project in modern industrial civilization, continuing to exert moral pressure on individual conduct, but averting the gaze from impersonal ‘structures of sin’ generated in the transition (and in this sense we should intend the cartoon, re-evoked by Illich himself many times, with which he took leave from the Council: a limp penis in the condom, a nuclear missile in an upright position, accompanied by the motto: ‘This is against nature’). It is the peculiarly Illichan thesis on a derivation of the Modern from ‘Christendom’, as a pious counterfeit of Christianity operated by the Church: a misunderstood kingdom of God on the earth, later inherited by man, except for his areas of weakness, of bonhoefferian minority, left to the Churches’ ambiguous management. Nevertheless, having repeated this once again, we are certainly not at the solution of the mysterium, as it is evident for Illich too, but only in the presence of a different and more internal facies of it. In effect, the betrayal of the Church

“is not un-Christian. As I understand the Gospels, with many others, it is part of the kénosis, the humiliation, the condescension of God in becoming man and founding or generating the mystical body that the Church understands itself to be”.

Indeed there is only one way to elaborate the mystery of corruptio optimi: to transfer its paradoxicality directly into God, something that the theologeme of the kénosis allowed various voices of 20th century religious thought to do in front of the mysterium iniquitatis. With a typical move of a widespread theological semi-marcionism, if not two divinities, at least two attributes of the same divinity are distinguished and contrasted, with a choice exclusively in favour of the more recently revealed one, foreign and persecuted goodness, in opposition to justice and might, freely abandoned by a God who, in so doing, withdraws first of all from himself, thus leaving the field to a negativity that a theodicy no longer dares to recover within a providential design. At this price,

“God’s goodness and power shines more glorious than ever, in the fact that he can tolerate [...] the this-worldliness of his church, which has become the seed from which modern service organizations have grown”:
where it should be noticed that also “power shines more gloriously than ever”, insofar as it is converted into powerlessness. Related to the divinity’s life, it is a dynamism analogous to that which lives, but in reversed roles, in the body of the Church. It was a feature of the kénosis indeed, to tolerate that
“this mystical body would itself be something ambiguous. It would be, on the one hand, a source of continued Christian life, through which the individuals acting alone and together would be able to live the life of faith and charity, and, on the other hand, a source of the perversion of this life through institutionalization, which makes charity wordly, and true faith obligatory”.

Illich is not saying here that this double eventuality is a structural ambivalence of the Church as such; namely that not either possibility, but both of them have always and necessarily occurred and continue to occur, never peacefully but each and every time in the most unprocessable contradiction, in a tragic (i.e. necessary and insoluble) co-belonging. He doesn't say this, because he is part of that contradiction, inseparable from it, and the powerless part of it: “sad son” who

“wants to be faithful and who sees in the stains of his mother, the Church, only a reason to believe more strongly, to admire Jesus who, in his prescience, must have known what Church will be and who, despite this, gave it to me as the only mother”.

As Illich had shifted the contradiction to God, so he has taken it upon himself, almost to alleviate the mother from that burden for a stretch of the road. But the pressure now deriving from it, if it didn’t settle down in the sweet paradoxes of typically non-believing ecclesiologies, is only ‘tolerable’ in the shortened perspective of an impending end:

“I live in the kairos in which the mystical body of Christ, through its own fault, is constantly being crucified, as his physical body was crucified and rose again on Easter day. I’m therefore expecting the resurrection of the Church from the humiliation, for which the Church itself must be blamed, of having gestated and brought forth the world of modernity”.

Since this latter has reached its full maturity, the unveiling of its anti-Christian nature can't delay any longer; and it is an apocalypse, like every other thing in Illich, which is totally incarnated:

“When I say I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life overlasting, the resurrection of the dead for me stands for the resurrection of the Church”.

Could the Church, however, also in its resurrected body, not bear the stigmas of its original constitution? In these terms, the mysterium iniquitatis suggests the recollection of a famous short story by Dostoevsky, which can be encountered in Illich's story too, and once directly from his lips, according to some testimonies. It is the central episode of his life, the above-mentioned letter of 18th June 1968 with which he refused to undergo the trial brought against him by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, because of the way it had been prepared, and offered to renounce his priesthood in return. The next morning he went to the Palace of Sant'Uffizio to Cardinal Seper, the Prefect of the Congregation, to personally deliver it to him. A little later the Cardinal sent him away telling him “Go, go, and never come back”. “It wasn’t until I was going down the stairs from his office – Illich recounts – that it struck me that he was quoting from the Inquisitor’s last words to the prisoner in Dostoievski’s story of The Grand Inquisitor”. (Seper was a Serbo-Croat himself, and those words were possibly spoken in a Slavic language.) Everything happened as if, from that moment, Illich acted in order to provide the silent prisoner's answer to the inquisitor, the longest and most meticulous apologia of (personal) freedom against (public) happiness, of fides against religio, of the existential risk against the assisted securities, of the personal, unpredictable act of love against organized ethical agencies, of the free, anarchic renunciation against the obligation to feel and satisfy needs. It was a reply which went on in an ‘apophatic’ way, in the greatest discretion and delicacy; from its position the Church, which nevertheless has spoken a lot in the meantime, remained perfectly silent. Then, after thirty-three years, a complete reversal of roles.

“It was my turn, with the utmost respect I told His Excellency that I was shocked by his use of the Christian mystery, of a purely personal and freely chosen friendship, with the aim of funding any globophile or globophobe agencies. I confided to the moderator my anguish in dealing with this topic in the presence of an audience like the one we had before us [extra-ecclesial, ed. note] but I felt I had to take a step forward. This one!: Jesus was asked : ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and he answered telling the tale of the Samaritan […] the Church, my Mother Church, pioneered poor houses for poor people, hospitals, schools for the institutionalization of charity! At this point Archbishop Plotti stood up, came towards me at the opposite end of the table, looked at me and hugged me.”

To lead back to this episode Illich's renunciation of silence as well as his gospel ‘shouted from the rooftops’ will certainly be forced. Certainly only inside that mute, inextricable hug can we fully understand his martyria, his testimony within the Church against the Church.


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