A Voice for Conviviality

Remembering Ivan Illich (1926?2002)


| March / April 2003


ON DECEMBER 2 in Bremen, Germany, priest and historian Monsignor Ivan Illich died in peace. He was taking a brief nap on a couch in the home of his friend Barbara Duden. Three months earlier, Ivan and I and two of his closest friends shared the pleasures of walking through the streets of Florence, Italy. We enjoyed a leisurely meal in a small, typically Tuscan restaurant. Laughter and Chianti flowed freely. As I got up to pay the bill, Ivan had already taken care of it.

Among the serious thinkers I have had the privilege to meet, Ivan Illich alone embodied in his life and work a profound critique of modern values. From Deschooling Society (1971) to In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), he bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that ?create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.?

Ivan Illich was unique: erudite, yet possessed of aliveness and sensitivity. He savored the ordinary pleasures of life even as he cheerfully embraced its inevitable suffering. Steeped in the authentic Christian tradition of pilgrim (he had no home, sharing only the hospitality of his friends and traveling from place to place with never more than two bags), he was able to understand the unforgiving allure of science and progress. With acute clarity and sense of irony, he undermined, in all that he wrote, the uncontested certitudes of modern society.

During his last visit to Oakland, he invited the local archbishop to discuss corruption in the early church and the evolution?as he saw it?of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional service. His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed non-plussed, even uncomfortable. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.

Two days after Illich died, The New York Times printed an obituary that was a polemic rather than a serious remembrance. The writer described Illich as a preacher of ?counterintuitive sociology? to ?a disquieted baby-boom generation,? using ?Jesuitic argumentation? and ?watered-down Marxism.? He also quoted a deceased Times literary critic who in 1989 said that he would ?especially? discard Illich?s books from his personal library.

Given Illich?s frontal assault on the status quo, it is not surprising that America?s newspaper of record would so interpret his life and work. One can?t attack, as he cheerfully did, schooling, medicine, even the ?pursuit of health,? transportation, and economic development and still earn approbation. Like the prophets before him, Illich is not easily accepted.