The National Catholic Review
Ivan Illich
From January 21, 1967
Image

Five years ago, U. S. Catholics undertook a peculiar alliance for the progress of the Latin American Church. By 1970, ten per cent of the more than 225,000 priests, brothers and sisters would volunteer to be shipped south of the border. In the meantime, the combined U. S. male and female "clergy" in South America has increased by only 1,622. Halfway is a good time to examine whether a program launched is still sailing on course and, more importantly, if its destination still seems worthwhile. Numerically, the program was certainly a flop. Should this be a source of disappointment or of relief?

The project relied on an impulse supported by uncritical imagination and sentimental judgment. A pointed finger and a "call for 20,000" convinced many that "Latin America needs YOU." Nobody dared state clearly why, though the first published propaganda included several references to the "Red danger" in four pages of text. The Latin America Bureau of the NCWC attached the word "papal" to the program, the volunteers and the call itself.

A campaign for more funds is now being proposed. This is the moment, therefore, at which the call for 20,000 persons and the need for millions of dollars should be re-examined. Both appeals must be submitted to a public debate among U. S. Catholics, from bishop to widow, since they are the ones asked to supply the personnel and pay the bill. Critical thinking must prevail. Fancy and colorful campaign slogans for another collection, with their appeal to emotion, will only cloud the real issues. Let us coldly examine the American Church's outburst of charitable frenzy which resulted in the creation of "papal" volunteers, student "mission crusades," the annual CICOP mass assemblies, numerous diocesan missions and new religious communities.

I will not focus on details. The above programs themselves continually study and revise minutiae. Rather, I dare to point out some fundamental facts and implications of the so-called papal plan--part of the many-faceted effort to keep Latin America within the ideologies of the West. Church policy makers in the United States must face up to the socio-political consequences involved in their well-intentioned missionary ventures. They must review their vocation as Christian theologians and their actions as Western politicians.

Men and money sent with missionary motivation carry a foreign Christian image, a foreign pastoral approach and a foreign political message. They also bear the mark of North American capitalism of the 1950's. Why not, for once, consider the shady side of charity; weigh the inevitable burdens foreign help imposes on the South American Church; taste the bitterness of the damage done by our sacrifices? If, for example, U. S. Catholics would simply turn from the dream of "ten per cent," and do some honest thinking about the implications of their help, the awakened awareness of intrinsic fallacies could lead to sober, meaningful generosity.

But let me be more precise. The unquestionable joys of giving and the fruits of receiving should be treated as two distinctly separate chapters. I propose to delineate only the negative results that foreign money, men and ideas produce in the South American Church, in order that the future U. S. program may be tailored accordingly.

During the past five years, the cost of operating the Church in Latin America has multiplied many times. There is no precedent for a similar rate of increase in Church expenses on a continental scale. Today, one Catholic university, mission society or radio chain may cost more to operate than the whole country's Church a decade ago. Most of the funds for this kind of growth came from outside and flowed from two types of sources. The first is the Church itself, which raised its income in three ways:

1. Dollar by dollar, appealing to the generosity of the faithful, as was done in Germany and the Low Countries by Adveniat, Misereor and Oostpriesterhulp. These contributions reach more than $25 million a year.

2. Through lump sums, made by individual churchmen--such as Cardinal Cushing, the outstanding example; or by institutions--such as the NCWC, transferring $1 million from the home missions to the Latin America Bureau.

3. By assigning priests, religious and laymen, all trained at considerable cost and often backed financially in their apostolic undertakings.

This kind of foreign generosity has enticed the Latin American Church into becoming a satellite to North Atlantic cultural phenomena and policy. Increased apostolic resources intensified the need for their continued flow and created islands of apostolic well-being, each day farther beyond the capacity of local support. The Latin American Church flowers anew by returning to what the Conquest stamped her: a colonial plant that blooms because of foreign cultivation. Instead of learning either how to get along with less money or close up shop, bishops are being trapped into needing more money now and bequeathing an institution impossible to run in the future. Education, the one type of investment that could give long-range returns, is conceived mostly as training for bureaucrats who will maintain the existing apparatus.

Recently, I saw an example of this in a large group of Latin American priests who had been sent to Europe for advanced degrees. In order to relate the Church to the world, nine-tenths of these men were studying teaching methods--catechetics, pastoral theology or canon law--and thereby not directly advancing their knowledge of either the Church or the world. Only a very few studied the Church in its history and sources, or the world as it is.

It is easy to come by big sums to build a new church in a jungle or a high school in a suburb, and then to staff the plants with new missioners. A patently irrelevant pastoral system is artificially and expensively sustained, while basic research for a new and vital one is considered an extravagant luxury. Scholarships for non-ecclesiastical humanist studies, seed money for imaginative pastoral experimentation, grants for documentation and research to make specific constructive criticism--all run the frightening risk of threatening our temporal structures, clerical plants and "good business" methods.

Even more surprising than churchly generosity for churchly concern is a second source of money. A decade ago, the Church was like an impoverished grande dame trying to keep up an imperial tradition of almsgiving from her reduced income. In the more than a century since Spain lost Latin America, the Church has steadily lost government grants, patrons' gifts and, finally, the revenue from its former lands. According to the colonial concept of charity, the Church lost its power to help the poor. It came to be considered a historical relic, inevitably the ally of conservative politicians.

By 1966, almost the contrary seems true--at least, at first sight. The Church has become an agent trusted to run programs aimed at social change. It is committed enough to produce some results. But when it is threatened by real change, it withdraws rather than permit social awareness to spread like wildfire. The smothering of the Brazilian radio schools by a high Church authority is a good example.

Thus Church discipline assures the donor that his money does twice the job in the hands of a priest. It will not evaporate, nor will it be accepted for what it is: publicity for private enterprise and indoctrination to a way of life that the rich have chosen as suitable for the poor. The receiver inevitably gets the message: the "padre" stands on the side of W. R. Grace and Co., Esso, the Alliance for Progress, democratic government, the AFL-CIO and whatever is holy in the Western pantheon.

Opinion is divided, of course, on whether the Church went heavily into social projects because it could thus obtain funds "for the poor," or whether it went after the funds because it could thus contain Castroism and assure its institutional respectability. By becoming an "official" agency of one kind of progress, the Church ceases to speak for the underdog who is outside all agencies but who is in an ever-growing majority. By accepting the power to help, the Church necessarily must denounce a Camilo Torres, who symbolizes the power of renunciation. Money thus builds the Church a "pastoral" structure beyond its means and makes it a political power.

Superficial emotional involvement obscures rational thinking about American international "assistance." Healthy guilt feelings are repressed by a strangely motivated desire to "help" in Vietnam. Finally, our generation begins to cut through the rhetoric of patriotic "loyalty." We stumblingly recognize the perversity of our power politics and the destructive direction of our warped efforts to impose unilaterally "our way of life" on all. We have not yet begun to face the seamy side of clerical manpower involvement and the Church's complicity in stifling universal awakening too revolutionary to lie quietly within the "Great Society."
 
I know that there is no foreign priest or nun so shoddy in his work that through his stay in Latin America he has not enriched some life; and that there is no missioner so incompetent that through him Latin America has not made some small contribution to Europe and North America. But neither our admiration for conspicuous generosity, nor our fear of making bitter enemies out of lukewarm friends, must stop us from facing the facts. Missioners sent to Latin America can make 1) an alien Church more foreign, 2) an over-staffed Church priest-ridden and 3) bishops into abject beggars. Recent public discord has shattered the unanimity of the national consensus on Vietnam. I hope that public awareness of the repressive and corruptive elements contained in "official" ecclesiastical assistance programs will give rise to a real sense of guilt: guilt for having wasted the lives of young men and women dedicated to the task of evangelization in Latin America.

Massive, indiscriminate importation of clergy helps the ecclesiastical bureaucracy survive in its own colony, which every day becomes more foreign and comfortable. This immigration helps to transform the old-style hacienda of God (on which the people were only squatters) into the Lord's supermarket, with catechisms, liturgy and other means of grace heavily in stock. It makes contented consumers out of vegetating peasants, demanding clients out of former devotees. It lines the sacred pockets, providing refuge for men who are frightened by secular responsibility.

Churchgoers, accustomed to priests, novenas, books and culture from Spain (quite possibly to Franco's picture in the rectory), now meet a new type of executive, administrative and financial talent promoting a certain type of democracy as the Christian ideal. The people soon see that the Church is distant, alienated from them--an imported, specialized operation, financed from abroad, which speaks with a holy, because foreign, accent.

This foreign transfusion--and the hope for more--gave ecclesiastical pusillanimity a new lease on life, another chance to make the archaic and colonial system work. If North America and Europe send enough priests to fill the vacant parishes, there is no need to consider laymen--unpaid for part-time work--to fulfill most evangelical tasks; no need to re-examine the structure of the parish, the function of the priest, the Sunday obligation and clerical sermon; no need for exploring the use of the married diaconate, new forms of celebration of the Word and Eucharist and intimate familial celebrations of conversion to the gospel in the milieu of the home. The promise of more clergy is like a bewitching siren. It makes the chronic surplus of clergy in Latin America invisible and it makes it impossible to diagnose this surplus as the gravest illness or the Church. Today, this pessimistic evaluation is slightly altered by a courageous and imaginative few-non-Latins among them--who see, study and strive for true reform.

A large proportion of Latin American Church personnel are presently employed in private institutions that serve the middle and upper classes and frequently produce highly respectable profits; this on a continent where there is a desperate need for teachers, nurses and social workers in public institutions that serve the poor. A large part of the clergy are engaged in bureaucratic functions, usually related to peddling sacraments, sacramentals and superstitious ·'blessings." Most of them live in squalor. The Church, unable to use its personnel in pastorally meaningful tasks, cannot even support its priests and the 670 bishops who govern them. Theology is used to justify this system, canon law to administer it and foreign clergy to create a world-wide consensus on the necessity of its continuation.

A healthy sense of values empties the seminaries and the ranks of the clergy much more effectively than a lack of discipline and generosity. In fact, the new mood of well-being makes the ecclesiastical career more attractive to the self-seeker. Bishops then turn servile beggars, become tempted to organize safaris, and hunt out foreign priests and funds for constructing such anomalies as minor seminaries. As long as such expeditions succeed, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to take the emotionally harder road: to ask ourselves honestly if we need such game.

Exporting Church employees to Latin America masks a universal and unconscious fear of a new Church. North and South American authorities, differently motivated but equally fearful, become accomplices in maintaining a clerical and irrelevant Church. Sacralizing employees and property, this Church becomes progressively more blind to the possibilities of sacralizing person and community.

It is hard to help by refusing to give alms. I remember once having stopped food distribution from sacristies in an area where there was great hunger. I still feel the sting of an accusing voice saying: "Sleep well for the rest of your life with dozens of children's deaths on your conscience." Even some doctors prefer aspirins to radical surgery. They feel no guilt having the patient die of cancer, but fear the risk of applying the knife. The courage needed today is that expressed by Daniel Berrigan, S. J., writing of Latin America: "I suggest we stop sending anyone or anything for three years and dig in and face our mistakes and find out how not to canonize them."

From six years’ experience in training hundreds of foreign missioners assigned to Latin America, I know that real volunteers increasingly want to face the truth that puts their faith to the test. Superiors, who shift personnel by their administrative decisions but do not have to live with the ensuing deceptions, are emotionally handicapped facing these realities.

The U. S. Church must face the painful side of generosity: the burden that a life gratuitously offered imposes on the recipient. The men who go to Latin America must humbly accept the possibility that they are useless or even harmful, although they give all they have. They must accept the fact that a limping ecclesiastical assistance program uses them as palliatives to ease the pain of a cancerous structure, the only hope that the prescription will give the organism enough time and rest to initiate a spontaneous healing. Much more probably, the pharmacist's pill will both stop the patient from seeking a surgeon's advice and addict him to the drug.

Foreign missioners increasingly realize that they heeded a call to plug the holes in a sinking ship because the officers did not dare launch the life rafts. Unless this is clearly seen, men who obediently offer the best years of their lives will find themselves tricked into a useless struggle to keep a doomed liner afloat as it limps through uncharted seas.

We must acknowledge that missioners can be pawns in a world ideological struggle and that it is blasphemous to use the gospel to prop up any social or political system. When men and money are sent into a society within the framework of a program, they bring ideas that live after them. It has been pointed out, in the case of the Peace Corps, that the cultural mutation catalyzed by a small foreign group might be more effective than all the immediate services it renders. The same can be true of the North American missioner--close to home, having great means at his disposal, frequently on a short-term assignment--who moves into an area of intense U. S. cultural and economic colonization. He is part of this sphere of influence and, at times, intrigue. Through the U. S. missioner, the United States shadows and colors the public image of the Church. The influx of U. S. missioners coincides with the Alliance for Progress, Camelot and CIA projects and looks like a baptism of these! The Alliance appears directed by Christian justice and is not seen for what it is: a deception designed to maintain the status quo, albeit variously motivated. During the program's first five years, the net capital leaving Latin America has tripled. The program is too small to permit even the achievement of a threshold of sustained growth. It is a bone thrown to the dog, that he remain quiet in the backyard of the Americas.

Within these realities, the U. S. missioner tends to fulfill the traditional role of a colonial power's lackey chaplain. The dangers implicit in Church use of foreign money assume the proportion of caricature when this aid is administered by a "gringo" to keep the "underdeveloped" quiet. It is, of course, too much to ask of most Americans that they make sound, clear and outspoken criticisms of U. S. socio-political aggression in Latin America; even more difficult that they do so without the bitterness of the expatriate or the opportunism of the turncoat.

Groups of U. S. missioners cannot avoid projecting the image of "U. S. outposts." Only individual Americans mixed in with local men could avoid this distortion. The U. S. missioner of necessity is an "undercover" agent--albeit unconscious--for U. S. social and political consensus. But, consciously and purposely, he wishes to bring the values of his Church to South America; adaptation and selection seldom reach the level of questioning the values themselves.
 
The situation was not so ambiguous ten years ago, when in good conscience mission societies were channels for the flow of traditional U. S. Church hardware to Latin America. Everything from the Roman collar to parochial schools, from the CCD to Catholic universities, was considered salable merchandise in the new Latin American market. Not much salesmanship was needed to convince the Latin bishops to give the "Made in U.S.A." label a try.

In the meantime, however, the situation has changed considerably. The U. S. Church is shaking from the first findings of a scientific and massive self-evaluation. Not only methods and institutions, but also the ideologies that they imply, are subject to examination and attack. The self-confidence of the American ecclesiastical salesman is therefore shaky. We see the strange paradox of a man attempting to implant, in a really different culture, structures and programs that are now rejected in the country of their origin. (I recently heard of a Catholic grammar school being planned by U. S. personnel in a Central American city parish where there are already a dozen public schools.)
There is an opposite danger, too.

Latin America can no longer tolerate being a haven for U. S. liberals who cannot make their point at home, an outlet for apostles too "apostolic" to find their vocation as competent professionals within their own community. The hardware salesman threatens to dump second-rate imitations of parishes, schools and catechisms--outmoded even in the United States--all around the continent. The traveling escapist threatens to further confuse a foreign world with his superficial protests, which were not viable even at home.

The American Church of the Vietnam generation finds it difficult to engage in foreign aid without exporting either its solutions or its problems. Both are prohibitive luxuries for developing nations. Mexicans, to avoid offending the sender, pay high duties for useless or unasked-for gifts sent them by well-meaning American friends. Gift-givers must think not of this moment and of this need, but in terms of a full generation, of the future effects. Gift-planners must ask if the global value of the gift in men, money and ideas is worth the price the recipient will ultimately have to pay for it. As Fr. Berrigan suggests, the rich and powerful can decide not to give; the poor can hardly refuse to accept. Since almsgiving conditions the beggar's mind, the Latin American bishops are not entirely at fault in asking for misdirected and harmful foreign aid. A large measure of the blame lies with the underdeveloped ecclesiology of U. S. clerics who direct the "sale" of American good intentions.

The U. S. Catholic wants to be involved in an ecclesiologically valid program, not in subsidiary political and social programs designed to influence the growth of developing nations according to anybody's social doctrine, be it even described as the Pope's. The heart of the discussion is therefore not how to send more men and money, but rather why they should be sent at all. The Church, in the meantime, is in no critical danger. We are tempted to shore up and salvage structures rather than question their purpose and truth. Hoping to glory in the works of our hands, we feel guilty, frustrated and angry when part of the building starts to crumble. Instead of believing in the Church, we frantically attempt to construct it according to our own cloudy cultural image. We want to build community, relying on techniques, and are blind to the latent desire for unity that is striving to express itself among men. In fear, we plan our Church with statistics, rather than trustingly search for it.

Msgr. Ivan Illich wrote this article while serving as the director of the Center of Inter-cultural Documentation (CIDOC), in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which prepared missioners for work in Latin America.  Msgr. Illich, who died in 2002,