Todd HARTCH, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.  235 pages. $29.95.  ISBN 978-0-19-020456-3.  Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.


         During March and April of 1964 Ivan Illich invited a group of theologians to his training center in Petropolis, Brazil, to discuss the development of a distinctively Latin American theology.  Among them were Segundo Galilea, Juan Luis Segundo, and Gustavo Gutirrez who spoke of theology as “critical reflection on praxis,” the beginning of what would become “liberation theology.”  The following year, in July, 1965, many of these same theologians met at Illich’s Intercultural Documentation Center (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to continue the conversation.  Coincidentally, a few miles away in Mexico City a group of U.S. and Canadian student project leaders were also meeting to assess our ongoing vision for the Conference on Interamerican Student Projects (CIASP).  We represented hundreds of students who were spending that summer living and working in communites throughout Mexico and Central America’a response to the much broader call from Pope John XXIII for mission to Latin America (a call that for many of us mixed together secular, ecclesial and romantic outreach: Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA), and 1960’s enthusiasm for change).

            Several years later, in April 1968, Illich and CIASP leadership came together again in Chicago.  Invited by these student leaders to speak on mission to Latin America, Illich chided them as “vacationing salesmen for the middle-class ‘American Way of Life’.”  They should not come to Mexico to “help,” no matter their good will: “To hell with good intentions.”  It was classic Ivan Illich, an example of what Todd Hartch in The Prophet of Cuernavaca calls Illich’s “anti-missionary” campaign, often carried out through shock-treatment.  Within a few years CIASP had ceased to exist’and in fact most of the enthusiasm for the U.S. Catholic Church mission outreach had dissipated by the early- to mid-1970s.  The reasons for this are complex, and not really the concern of Hartch’s excellent book.  (Interested readers might want to locate Gerald M. Costello’s Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth Century Crusade for a comprehensive treatment of this entire period.)  But Illich played a significant role in the re-thinking of mission to Latin America, and it is this role that Todd Hartch explores.

            Born in Vienna in 1926, Ivan Dinko Illich became a Catholic priest and eventually came to the United States destined, it seemed, for an academic career.  But time spent living in a largely Puerto Rican parish in New York led him to an assignment developing a training center in Puerto Rico for missioners, especially language and cultural training.  In 1961 political and eccesial conflicts with the island’s bishops led to moving the training center to Cuernavaca, Mexico.  The Center for Intercultural Formation (CIF) opened with the initial goal of continuing the language and cultural formation of missioners destined for Latin America’a central part of the U.S. Catholic Church’s mission project.  While continuing to train missioners, the Cuernavaca center eventually began to focus on research and documentation becoming the Intercultural Documentation Center (CIDOC) by 1965; it would continue as CIDOC until it closed in 1976.  Hartch pays particular attention to what he calls Illich’s “Catholic period,” 1961-1967, concentrating on Illich’s critique of the whole Latin American program being carried out by the U.S. Bishops‘ Latin American Bureau under the leadership of Maryknoll missioner Fr. John Considine.  Illich’s criticism, designed to provoke response, came out most strongly in his 1967 article in America, “The Seamy Side of Charity”: American missionaries should acknowledge that they were “pawns in a world ideological struggle,” “a colonial power’s lackey chaplains,” intent on making the Latin American church into an image of middle-class U.S. parishes.  It remains a thought-provoking critique for missioners to ponder.

            This led to Illich’s “secular period,” 1967-1976, a period during which he renounced his privileges and powers as a priest (1969), but remained “always a priest” while continuing the research and documentation work of CIDOC in Cuernavaca.  Missioners and others continued to come there looking to share in the intellectual milieu’some prospered, others were disappointed.  And Illich himself moved toward wider societal reflections in his critiques of education (Deschooling Society) and the health care system (Medical Nemesis).  “Despite the different lives of Illich, he is best understood as a Catholic priest of conscious orthodoxy grappling with the crisis of Western modernity.”

            For those already familiar with Ivan Illich, The Prophet of Cuernavaca offers an in-depth look at Illich’s “Catholic period,” and particularly his discussion of mission. (Was Illich really “anti-missionary” as Hartch insists?  Or would it be better to focus on his positive understanding of the mission vocation?)  Readers new to Illich will find here a fine introduction to Illich’s life and thought, especially 1961 to 1976.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with Illich’s critique of Western society and mission in particular, it is clear that’as Hartch concludes “few could dispute that he risked everything he had to present his message to the world.  That is what a prophet does.”