Finding Illich

David Cayley’s labour of love

Penned in 1959 and published in 1967, “The Vanishing Clergyman” was Ivan Illich’s bravura entry into the contentious world of ecclesiastical polemics and combative theologies following the Second Vatican Council. It is a measure of his prophetic instincts that the essay, although released after the council ended in 1965, was conceived several years before that assembly began in 1962. In it, Illich foresaw “the face-to-face meeting of families around a table, rather than the impersonal attendance of a crowd around an altar. Celebration will sanctify the dining room, rather than connected buildings the ceremony.” It wasn’t exactly orthodox Catholic teaching and practice — but it was vintage Illich.

A priest with the honorary rank of monsignor, a vice-rector of a Catholic university, and a major figure in shaping intercultural thinking, Illich was by the time of the essay’s publication an unwelcome celebrity in official Church circles, even though he had his patrons and protectors, including the conservative archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman.

It is this “meddlesome priest” whom the author and CBC documentarian David Cayley has spent decades coming to understand and to celebrate. The result is a hefty volume with ­copious footnotes, peppered with personal anecdotes and detailed analysis. Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey is a thinker’s text, the reading of which requires committed attention if not a deep sympathy. Part memoir, part apologia, part scrupulous investigation of one man’s timeless insights, it is both an ­homage and a love ­letter to an iconoclastic Christian who remained deeply rooted in the structures he ­rattled. It is a ­gallimaufry, a potpourri of penetrating ­reflections on the life of a gadfly.

Cayley spent years with Illich, interviewing him several times for CBC Radio’s documentary series Ideas, befriending him, travelling to visit him ­wherever he was domiciled at the time, and managing to get this rabble-rouser of a cleric to disclose things of the heart: his ­anxieties and uncertainties as well as his sparklingly generative and often disturbingly provocative notions. Cayley makes the case that Illich was an ­intellectual disrupter and that his capacity to disrupt was ingrained in childhood.

Illich was born in 1926, in Vienna, to a family of established means, but he was to taste early the trauma of displacement with the rupture of divorce, the moves with his mother, the ascent of antisemitism before the Anschluss, and his resettling in Florence. A gifted polyglot, he could acclimatize most anywhere.

Armed with advanced degrees in theology, philosophy, and crystallography and possessing an insatiable interest in social structures, Illich founded the Center for Intercultural Formation, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961. Eventually, he fell out of favour with ecclesiastical higher-ups, resigned from active ministry (although he never sought laicization or reduction to the lay state), and began a writing career marked by earnestness, moral urgency, and benign ­antinomianism. An organic conservative, he had a taste for ­comprehensive institutional dissolution.

Cayley takes up seven of the books that poured out of Illich’s fevered intelligence: Celebration of Awareness ; Deschooling Society ; Tools for Conviviality ; Energy and Equity ; Medical Nemesis ; The Right to Useful Unemployment and Its Professional Enemies ; and Gender, all published between 1970 and 1982. There were other publications, but these major works constitute the essential Illich canon. Cayley examines the “modern horrors” that he inveighed against, including “compulsory schools that corrupt learning and tie social advancement to progress in a rigged game, health institutions that turn life into a scarce resource, transportation systems that immobilize the majority so a few can be ‘almost omni-present.’ ”

Illich’s anti-establishment critiques originated not in a revolutionary fervour steeped in an ideology of anarchism, Marxist polarities, or epistemological deconstructionism but rather in a radical Christian primitivism and a conviction that the freedom proclaimed in the Gospels had been corrupted by no less a power than the Church itself. The reclamation of this freedom became his “mission.” Cayley acknowledges the polemical quality of much of Illich’s writings, his reluctance to get too systematic, his inclination to draw attention to the structures of thought that enslave us without imposing a consistent methodology and offering a fully fleshed-out critique. The shards of insight and fragments of genius that surface in Illich’s rarely elegant prose constitute, for Cayley, the refined oeuvre of a sometimes quixotic and ­infuriating savant — a creative amalgam of Cassandra and Savonarola.

It does not escape Cayley that this often impassioned oeuvre can be and has been ­easily discounted by academics, dismissed by the professional and invested classes, and vilified by the keepers of the new orthodoxies. He also knows that Illich’s intellectual celebrity reached its peak in the 1970s; that the controversies surrounding Gender, the following decade, damaged his reputation as a liberal thinker; and that his later timidity or heightened caution concerning Christianity’s self-corruption stood in sharp contrast with the temerity of his earlier output.

Cayley plunges into the whirligig of the social and political forces that discounted Illich as nothing more than an engaging intellectual provocateur of evanescent interest. Instead he affirms his pedigree, originality, and enduring relevance. To that end, he explores the philosopher’s forebears — including Hugh of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas — and demonstrates how they shaped Illich’s views on friendship, freedom, and community. Illich drew on the intellectual ferment of the early Middle Ages, a legacy he employed adroitly when countering the excesses of the crippling scientism and disabling technologism of his own time. “The principle Illich followed was always that freedom to innovate and rootedness in tradition are different sides of the same coin,” Cayley writes. “Without the rootedness, innovation is promiscuous and unguided, as we see in the riot of ‘­disruptive’ innovation taking place all around us. Without the innovation, the ­opposite occurs, and rootedness in tradition lapses into arid habit.”

How Illich achieved a certain equipoise, Cayley argues, can be found in his appropriation of Nicholas of Cusa’s “coincidence of ­opposites”: the complementarity of opposites that we find in Eastern mysticism or in the ­balancing of ­contraries that we see worked out in the poetics of William Blake. What Illich called a “­monocular perception of reality,” Blake defined as single vision or Urizen, the fore­closure of human experience and the ­constriction of the imagination by a narrow rationalism.

The pandemic has contorted our health care priorities, the corporatization of our universities has undermined the disinterestedness of learning, and institutional Christianity is imploding. Ivan Illich’s work offers us a much needed intellectual and spiritual balm in a time distinguished by the untidy dissolution of certainties. But such a balm is not purchased by cheap grace. It is costly; it requires a new visioning. David Cayley’s retrieval of this “vanishing clergyman” offers a way forward in a darkening landscape.