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Ivan Illich, 76; Ex-Priest Condemned Modernity

December 07, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Ivan Illich, a social scientist and onetime Catholic priest who railed against modern technology, the education system and standardized health care, died Monday at his home in Bremen, Germany, at 76. The cause of death was not known.

Illich's numerous books and articles earned him a reputation as a crank and a visionary whose first allegiance was to the past. He saw modern technology as oppressive, claiming, for example, that cars enslaved society and that bicycles were a faster way to travel.

A teacher for more than 50 years, he was wary of his own profession. In his 1971 book "De-Schooling Society," he argued that children learn best at home or in casual situations rather than through formal education.

He became a familiar name in religious and education circles after he founded a training center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961. Part language program, part think tank, the Intercultural Center of Documentation prepared missionaries to work in Mexico and Latin America and attracted priests, nuns and lay Catholics.

When he opened the center, Illich was a Catholic monsignor, but from the first he challenged his students' existing assumptions about Western superiority and religious patriarchy, which soon embroiled him in ecclesiastical controversy.

His view that the Catholic Church should dissolve its bureaucracy did not help his standing with the Vatican.

In 1968 Illich was called to Rome to explain, but he refused to answer his interrogators' questions.

Thousands of dollars in church funds were withdrawn from his center and he severed ties between the center and religious institutions. A year later he resigned from the priesthood. By then he had chosen the social causes that occupied him for the rest of his life.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Illich was the son of a Catholic Croatian civil engineer. His mother was a Sephardic Jew and, in 1941, his family was expelled from Croatia because of her Jewish heritage.

Illich completed his education in Salzburg, Austria; Florence, Italy; and Rome, where he entered a seminary. As a new priest in 1952, he moved to New York City to work in a parish made up mainly of Puerto Ricans. Four years later he was named vice rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico.

There, he complained that fellow clergy arriving from the mainland did not speak adequate Spanish nor did they know very much about Latino culture.

In 1960 he disputed the local bishop, James McManus, who forbade local Catholics to vote for a gubernatorial candidate who was a proponent of state-funded birth control.

Illich defended their right to exercise their freedom of conscience, a fundamental teaching of Catholic ethics.

Denounced by the bishop, he returned to New York to work as a research assistant at Fordham University. He also founded an early version of the center he later established in Mexico.

In October 1961, four months after Illich opened his center in Cuernavaca, Time magazine reported on the training program, whose highlights included 5 1/2-hour drills in Spanish and group therapy sessions that tore down ethnocentric beliefs.

"Some of the inmates are not sure themselves what they have got into, or what manner of wild man is this dark, cadaverous Ivan Illich who yells at them and lectures them, plays and prays with them, insults them and drinks with them," Time reported.

In 1967, two years before he left the priesthood, Illich recommended that the Catholic Church radically reorganize itself for the future. He envisioned a time when small groups of Christians met for supper in private homes and the laity took a greater role in church leadership.

The declining number of priests was in his estimation a good sign. "We welcome the disappearance of institutional bureaucracy in a spirit of deep joy," he wrote in an article for Critic magazine.

For the next 15 years his books met with mixed reviews by critics, who praised his keen intelligence but complained that his research was selective and one-sided and that he rarely offered alternatives to the social situations he decried.

His most important book, "De-Schooling Society" (1971), prompted reviewer Anatole Broyard to compare it to a speech that gives you goose bumps. But he rejected a number of Illich's arguments. "Schools aren't as bad as he maintains, most learning isn't acquired casually, as he says ... schools are not entirely self-perpetuating, as he says," Broyard wrote for the New York Times.

Illich's "Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health" in 1975 contended that the medical establishment is a hazard to people's health. "Shadow Work" in 1981 criticized modern technology.

Peter Berger, the noted sociologist, reviewed the latter. "Its weaknesses are those of his earlier books," Berger wrote for the New York Times. "Mr. Illich seems incapable of perceiving the liberating and humanizing effects of modernity."

From 1979 until his death, Illich worked as a professor on university faculties in Europe and the United States teaching political science, medieval history, architecture and sociology, among other subjects.

Writing about him for America, the Jesuit magazine, in 1967, Fordham University colleague Father Joseph P. Fitzpatrick noted that Illich believed in conflict if it helped bring about change.

"He is therefore and always will be a sign of contradiction and a focus of controversy," he wrote.

Illich never married and had no children.

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