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Ivan Illich and the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America.

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. Cardinal Francis SpeUman greatly appreciated Illich's efforts with the Puerto Rican community, gave him the title of monsignor, and then gave him the position of vice-rector of a Catholic university in Puerto Rico itself. While spending most of the 1960s and 1970s in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Illich became a prolific social critic who enjoyed mainstream success with books such as Deschooling Society, which characterized public education as part of "a global process of degradation and modernized misery." (8) He lived with colleagues in Germany in the years before his death in 2002.

Training Missionaries to Go Home

As Illich prepared his missionary training center in the spring of 1961, he understood that two popes had called for massive aid to Latin America, but he believed that missionary work by Americans for Latin Americans would be harmful for both groups. Most missionaries that he had encountered were "stunted, or wholly destroyed" by their work; all they accomplished was "to impede the revolutionary changes needed" in Latin America. "The projected crusade had to be stopped," he thought. Therefore, Illich ensured that the Center for Intercultural Formation had impeccable credentials that would attract many would-be missionaries. It was affiliated with Fordham University and enjoyed the support of Cardinal Spellman of New York, of the Latin America Bureau, and of Cardinal Cushing of Boston. "Through our educational program for missionaries we intended to challenge them to face reality and themselves, and either refuse their assignments or--if they accepted--to be a little bit less unprepared," Illich later admitted. (9)

Thirty-five lay Catholics and twenty-seven clergy attended the first session in 1961, and similar numbers attended two four-month sessions each year during most of the 1960s. (10) The training began with language instruction of the highest quality, designed to produce fluency in Spanish by the end of the course. A team of local teachers gave the trainees five hours a day of instruction in classes of no more than four students: three hours in guided drills, an hour in the language laboratory, and another hour in directed conversation. (11) Not surprisingly, the rigor of the five-hour-per-day language classes stressed some students to the breaking point. "It was so intensive that you'd have people almost breaking down," remarked one. "This was Illich's approach, of course. If you cracked, fine; he'd either build you back up or he'd lose you." (12)

Comments from the language staff on some of the trainees in the first session gave a hint of their attitudes toward their charges. One young man, for example, was judged to be "neither articulate in any language nor will he learn Spanish too well." A young woman was seen as "psychologically unfit to the adaptation necessary to learn any language well." Another candidate was believed to lack "capacity to accept another language." (13)

The stressful language classes softened students up for classes specifically focused on missions, history, and culture, as well as for conversations with the staff. Many of the ideas that Illich presented were similar to those he had developed in Puerto Rico (for priests and sisters he had trained to work with Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States), but warnings and negative examples assumed a larger role. He affirmed the mystical nature of missionary service, especially its connection to Christ's incarnation through suffering; but he spent much of his time drawing out the dangers of faulty missionary preparation. In doing so, he inevitably suggested to many "neo-missioners" that they were unqualified and ill-prepared. (14)

For example, Illich emphasized the high level of academic preparation required by prospective missionaries. Candidates needed "increased receptivity for the poetic, the historical, and the social aspects of reality." If they had this prerequisite, they must use the "conceptual instruments" of social scientists, including "role, status, function, community versus society, self-image versus expectation; public opinion and social pressure; movement and organization; institutionalization and charismatic leadership," to gain a sociological, anthropological, political, economic, cultural, and historical understanding of the societies in which they wished to work. He believed that "today it would be folly to try to think of the Church and its growth without reference to these aspects which relate it to any society or community." (15) He did not say it directly, but he strongly implied that prospective missionaries had to be not only intelligent but also well educated before they began training; if they passed this hurdle, they had to become experts on Latin America in several different areas. How many trainees could meet these standards?

One visitor admitted that Illich might produce a missionary elite but lamented, "The Monsignor is aiming high, too high for me and others of my capacity." Another asked, "Is rigorism needed today, or sanctity coupled with skills?" (16) Complaints that Illich was being too tough on his charges also came from Cardinal Cushing and the papal nuncio in Peru, Romulo Carboni, perhaps the two most important leaders in the church's efforts to send United States personnel to Latin America, but Considine, still in the dark about Illich's real goals, defended the "masterly job" that Illich was doing. (17)

Use of Controversy

Another element of Illich's approach was controversy, or what some called "the shock-treatment approach." He liked to surprise earnest sisters and young priests with semiscandalous ideas, for Instance, yelling "I hate Yankees!" at a nun, or claiming that an ideal missionary "may have little pastoral feeling for his people" and might merely assist "in a cold and technical way." He also enjoyed presenting difficult or challenging ideas in forms attributed to others, for example, by quoting a Latin American bishop who allegedly said, "I need to ordain many of my older married men to the priesthood." In another instance he mentioned a scholar's idea that the church was the foundation of aristocracy in Colombia. Time reported, "Illich and his staff deliberately make the students angry, start arguments, challenge cherished beliefs." (18)

In one instance, a group of sisters came to Illich "in great distress" because a speaker had told them not to share their God with Latin Americans and that their God could not be adopted by Latin Americans. In another case, Illich asked his students if they loved "Pedro," a hypothetical migrant to Mexico City from the countryside. "Do you love him for himself, for what he is? Or do you love God in him? If you love him because you love God in him, you are wrong. There is no worse offense. It is a denial of the natural order." In both cases, Illich could cluck at their lack of insight and explain what he or the other speaker really meant, but both the scandal of the near-heresy and the seed of doubt planted by Illich's explanation would remain. (19)

Even intelligent and mature students who had devoured the literature of the social sciences and mastered the ethics of intercultural communication faced a gauntlet between two terrible dangers. On one hand was the risk of holding onto one's own culture. Now Illich added the corresponding hazard of "identification with a group in process of being marginalized." Improper identification with host cultures could result in "marginalization of Church" and in "destruction of the church from within." (20) Illich did not explain how one could avoid holding too tightly to one's own culture while simultaneously avoiding improper identification with host cultures; these two challenges seem designed more to scare off potential missionaries than to help them adapt to the mission field.

An Exclusionary Agenda

What was the poor neo-missioner to do with these high expectations? Many of them, Illich hoped, would realize that they were not equipped to be missionaries, that "not every man can be a missionary." (21) In fact, Illich listed seven types who should learn to recognize their unsuitability for missions: (1) those fleeing home in a sort of "psychological escapism," (2) aggressive nationalists, (3) missionary adventurers with "sensuous dreams of a jungle or martyrdom or of growing a beard," (4) the "ecclesiastic conquistador" devoted to "heaping up baptisms," (5) those more Interested in "apostolic tourism" than in self-sacrifice, and (6) the unreflective missioner who introduced "songs, and stories, and folklore" from the home country, resulting eventually in the alienation of the host culture from its roots; this last type was "particularly dangerous." (22)

The seventh group, the one that Illich found most objectionable, was the Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA), the major lay component of the missionary initiative in Latin America. Theoretically, lay Catholics would volunteer their expertise to meet specific needs for periods of two to five years, but in practice many of the 177 volunteers who were serving by March 1963 did not offer needed skills, and few had any clear idea of what they would be doing in the region. To Ulich, the program's goals for its short-term lay missionaries were "irrelevant, misleading, and even offensive" because Latin America did not need unskilled volunteers looking for short-term spiritual highs; rather, it needed highly trained professionals. Why, then, give them any space at CIF? The answer was, "They are on their way, with or without a CIF course." He continued, "Painfully, we have learned how to help such volunteers shed their misguided missionary zeal.... They are welcome guests on equal footing with all other students." (23) Unspoken was the fact that being on equal footing with other students meant being equally subject to Illich's attempts to send them home.

When the PAVLA director warned a volunteer named Sue Maloney that she would have to reimburse PAVLA the cost of her time in Cuernavaca if she did not accept her assignment to Lima, Peru, Illich objected that this action was "against all academic, ecclesiastical, and human traditions." Illich then presented an interesting definition of the CIF as "a place where volunteers for missions do make up their minds, to find out if they are suited." "You have no right in any way to construe the tuition and travel paid for Sue as an amount you can ask back from Sue if Sue decides not to act for you," he insisted. (24) To him it was a matter of principle, but it was also a matter of his goals for the center. If volunteers with second thoughts could be pressured into Latin America, all of his tactics would amount to little.


Illich also believed that many prospective missioners did not know their own hearts. They saw themselves as "sacrificing" for the church, but instead they were merely seeking fulfillment and adventure. "Please do not imagine yourself a saint or a 'missioner' because you 'volunteer' your services to the Church!" he begged. To one such volunteer who appeared to Illich to be on an adventure, on her own terms, for her own satisfaction, he stated, "The principal danger I can see in your decision to accept employment by the Church under the conditions you seek it is that you fool yourself, that you believe yourself to be what you are not: a totally dedicated, totally consecrated woman." (25)

Gradually Illich's vision for the center became more and more evident. A signal of a new, more public chapter of Illich's antimissionary campaign came when he announced proudly on the pages of the New York Times, "We are not training missionaries. We are training people to have a deep sense of humility, who will seek to make their faith relevant to the society in which they will be working." (26) Later, astute observers, such as journalist Francine du Plessix Gray, recognized that the center "was not so much designed to train missionaries as to keep all but the most progressive of them away [from Latin America]." (27)

Therefore, in late 1966, when Illich first sent out "The Seamy Side of Charity," he was beginning the last phase of his campaign against the missionary initiative in Latin America. He believed that CIF had succeeded in subverting the missionary initiative among "the educated groups" in the American church through its training programs and its publications, and he calculated that less than I percent of American and Canadian clergy had heeded the papal call to Latin America, far from the desired 10 percent.

Still, he detected continuing support for the initiative among the hierarchy and "uneducated Catholics" because of "an intense public relations campaign" by the Latin America Bureau. The combination of the upcoming CICOP gathering and news of an imminent expose in Ramparts of the CIA's infiltration of student groups in Latin America convinced him that the time was right to stop the "enthusiasm" once and for all. "Under these circumstances," he argued, "public and intensive controversy had to be sponsored." (28)

In the end, Illich and his center played a major role in the failure of the Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America, which never achieved the numbers or impact envisioned by the Vatican. As his center attracted more and more negative attention, in 1968 Illich was summoned to Rome for a trial by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (successor to the Holy Office). Although he was not convicted of heresy, Illich renounced his priestly powers and privileges in 1969 and lived more or less as a layman for the rest of his life. The center in Cuernavaca became a sort of secular think tank that attracted intellectuals from around the world. Seeking to avoid entangling the church in controversy, he focused his intellectual energies on social issues and won widespread acclaim for his critiques of education, economic development, and medicine. He became an itinerant intellectual, teaching at American and German universities in the 1980s before settling with friends and disciples in Bremen, Germany, where he stayed until his death in 2002. Few understood that his criticisms of the West's major institutions were a form of apophatic theology, laments for the corruption of the church.

Explaining Illich

In the context of Illich's comprehensive antimissionary program and continuing denunciations of the church, it is important to note that he never saw his project as antichurch or anti-Christianity and that he could conceive of missionary activity in a positive sense. In "Mission and Midwifery," a speech to other missionary training directors in 1964, for instance, he spoke insightfully about mission as "the growth of the Church into new peoples" and "the interpretation of the Word of God through its expression in ever new languages, in ever new translation." (29) He always believed that he was serving the church through his antimissionary work at CIF. The atmosphere that he engineered there, with its nearly impossibly steep intellectual challenges and confrontational tactics, was designed to weed out as many neo-missioners as possible, but not to turn them away from God. In fact, he offered spiritual solace to his students from morning to night and framed their studies in a pervasive Catholic spirituality. He scheduled daily Masses at 6:15 and 6:45 each morning, offered an hour for adoration of the sacrament every night, and on Thursday nights had his colleagues volunteer for one-hour shifts so that students could adore the sacrament all night. (30) He was trying to safeguard the honor of the church, not to destroy it; he was trying to protect the souls of students, not lead them astray.

Throughout his life Illich loved the mystical, universal body of Christ and tried to serve it as best he could. Much of his own ministry was cross-cultural as a Jewish-Croatian working with Puerto Ricans or Irish Americans or Mexicans, it could hardly be otherwise. What was the problem, then? What was the root cause of his passionate, ongoing, semideceitful crusade against the American Catholic missionary initiative in Latin America?

At the heart of it lay his own imposing example, his view of Americans, and his fear that too many of the latter could destroy the region he loved. He was brilliant simultaneously as theologian, philosopher, historian, scientist, and priest, one who could pick up a new language in weeks and who quickly imbibed the history, literature, poetry, art, culture, and philosophy of any society that attracted him. He related easily to churchmen, intellectuals, politicians, students, peasants, and whoever else came across his path because of his powers of perception and understanding. In fact, delicacy, an ability to perceive nuance and to respond with appropriate subtlety, was one of Illich's highest values and one of his great abilities. For instance, Illich taught about the "time and effort and delicacy" needed by missionaries as they learned to speak a foreign language---and learned how to be silent, "to communicate delicately through silences." He portrayed "growth in delicacy" as one of the sure signs of missionary maturity. (31) The problem Illich saw in American volunteers, therefore, was not selfishness or even lack of preparation but a lack of delicacy.

For example, he mentioned a South American bishop who was "rightly frightened of a group of fine, well-prepared, generous Americans messing up his very delicate operation." In the same vein, he unleashed one of his most venomous speeches at a group of American volunteers for the sin of an "abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy." (32) Consequently, when he imagined Americans at work among Latin Americans, he cringed with embarrassment for the church that he loved.

In many cases he was right to cringe. Those Irish American priests in New York City whom he first started working with and their brother priests in Puerto Rico did butcher the Spanish language and had little appreciation for Puerto Rican poetry, and those religious sisters did come to Peru with all sorts of cultural baggage that would take decades to work out of them, if it ever did get worked out of them. But 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.


(1.) Gerald Costello, Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth-Century Crusade (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 122-24; Ivan Illich, "The Seamy Side of Charity," in Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, by Ivan Illich (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 53-68.

(2.) Illich, "The Seamy Side," pp. 57, 60, and 65.

(3.) Louis Luzbetak, "International Cultural Problems," CICOP Working Paper C-34-67, CICOP Working Papers (Davenport, Iowa: Latin America Bureau, 1967), p. 10.

(4.) Costello, Mission, p. 127; "Four Join Cushing in Jesuit Rebuke," New York Times, January 28, 1967, p. 15.

(5.) Costello, Mission, p. 125.

(6.) Pins XII called for more attention to Latin America in his apostolic letter "Ad Ecclesiam Christi" of June 29, 1955. The first inter-American Episcopal Conference on strengthening the Latin American Church was held November 2-4, 1959. In 1961 Pope John XXIII's representative Agostino Casaroli called for U.S. major superiors to send 10 percent of their personnel to Latin America within ten years.

(7.) Francine du Plessix Gray, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (New York: Knopf, 1970), p. 242.

(8.) Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 2.

(9.) Illich, "The Seamy Side," p. 54.

(10.) "Students According to Their Superiors" [CIF, 1961], National Catholic Welfare Conference Papers, Latin America Bureau section, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. (hereafter referred to as CUA), box 186, file 63.

(11.) Ivan Illich, Report, September 22, 1961, CUA 186:63; "Boot Camp for Urbanites," Time, October 27, 1961, accessed at time/magazine/article/0,9171,873496,00.html.

(12.) Held Griffin, quoted in Costello, Mission, p. 93.

(13.) "Midterm Report from Guidance Committee and Language Department," August 13, 1961, CUA 186:58.

(14.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," in The Church, Change, and Development, by Ivan Illich, ed. Fred Eychaner (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), pp. 85-111.

(15.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," pp. 87, 90; Illich, "Principles of Mission Education," CIF Reports 2, no. 7 (December 1963): 30-32.

(16.) Donald Hessler to John J. Considine, August 9, 1961, CUA 191:18; John Stitz to Considine, December 12, 1961, CUA 186:54.

(17.) Considine, Diary, October 7, 1961, John J. Considine Papers, Maryknoll Archives, Ossining, N.Y.; Considine to Laurence McGinley October 11, 1961, CUA 186:51.

(18.) Costello, Mission, p. 65; Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," pp. 91, 93; "Boot Camp for Urbanites"; Illich, "Principles," p. 31.

(19.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," p. 88; "Boot Camp for Urbanites."

(20.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," p. 95.

(21.) Ibid., pp. 99-100; Illich, "Principles," p. 31.

(22.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," pp. 99-100; "Dialogue Among Directors: Workshop for Directors of Training Formation Centers in Latin America," CIF Reports 3, no. 4 (July 1964): 12.

(23.) Illich, "Dear Father Kevane," in Illich, The Church, pp. 38-41.

(24.) Illich to Michael Lies, October 14, 1961, CUA 186:52; Illich to Michael Lies, November 13, 1961, CUA 186:52.

(25.) Illich, "Dear Mary: Letter to an American Volunteer," in Illich, The Church, pp. 42-44.

(26.) Henry Giniger, "Mexican Center Trains a New Kind of Priest for Latin America," New York Times, December 26, 1965, p. 15.

(27.) Gray, Divine Disobedience, p. 253.

(28.) Illich, "The Seamy Side," pp. 53-55.

(29.) Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," pp. 87, 105.

(30.) Illich, Report, September 22, 1961, CUA 186:63.

(31.) Illich, "The Eloquence of Silence," in Illich, Celebration, p. 46; Illich, "Mission and Midwifery," p. 109.

(32.) Illich to Considine, August 23, 1961, CUA 186:52; Illich, "Ivan Illich Speech in Chicago to CIASP," April 20, 1968, CIASPhistory/IllichCIASPspeech.htm.

Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history and directs the history graduate program at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky. He is the author of Missionaries of the State (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2006), a history of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in
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Author:Hartch, Todd
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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