The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings


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Ivan Illich
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , October
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While writing this review for The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, I learned that Ivan Illich is buried in a cemetery behind a small protestant church just a mile from my home. So, I decided to go pay my respects. Surrounded by about 1,000 tombstone graves with well-groomed plots was an unkempt little mound with a small wooden cross, mostly covered by an overgrown sage bush. Visiting such a modest gravesite, which stands out by merit of its simplicity, led me to read differently his essay, "The End of Human Life," which concludes with the idea of "death as the supreme act of human prayer" (42).

This collection is full of such sage wisdom, and not only about death. It is assembled by the competent and committed hands of Valentina Borremans and Sajay Samuel, and sharply addresses the shortcomings of the Catholic Church to which Illich remained committed, and the church’s complicated cultural embeddedness and expansion in the 20th century. It develops prophetic-like analyses of how the church can regain, especially in Latin America, its sense of pride in a radical balance of independence and unity.

Illich is known for being a staunch cultural critic of the church, a critic who reflected deeply upon concrete practices, the problems of bureaucracy, administration, and, above all, insidious forms of economical thinking. Yet it would be a mistake to see such criticism as cruel and heartless. For him "criticism brings about change" as "one of the areas in which Christian love for the church can develop" (6).

In a stout forward Giorgio Agamben lays out, in greater detail than I can, the impact the contents of these essays might have. "The Powerless Church" is the title of but one among the included eighteen miscellaneous personal letters, lectures, and popular-level publications. Although the original, indended audience of these pieces mostly were Catholic communities in America, this collection retains relevance for anyone interested in the complicated relationship between globalization and the church, the church’s internal and external forms of education, and its sociopolitical expressions that at times can undermine the ecclesial intentions of serving local communities.

These essays act as a burning glass that refracts theory through the prisms of practical case studies, then collects them into sharp, tough-love theses. The topics range from intentional poverty, subversive missionary life, the kingdom of God as a holy socialization, consumerism and power, the incarnation within the profane, and faith to Christ. Given the collection's breadth of thirty years, and its being composed of an assortment of eighteen selected writings, it is not possible to summarize it into a sustainable, core claim.

However, in addition to the recurring themes, which always reflect an ambivalent yet affectionate relationship with both the church and the secular world, there are indeed recurring arguments and turns of phrase that stand to represent the collection as a whole. From a number of angles, Illich praises forms of non-power, such as poverty, and addresses how a de-organization or "deschooling" of church bureaucracy—which I would call an ecclesial anarchism—is necessary to save its collective soul. Spiritual detachment and freedom can come, but only once the church dismounts the dark horse of pragmatic capitalism: efficiency. Illich unloads his critique on such efficiency, claiming that “The Roman Church is the world's largest non-governmental bureaucracy . . . [and] . . . rates among the most efficiently operated organizations in the world . . . on par with General Motors" (101). This is no compliment, for it represents how "clerical technocracy is even further from the Gospel than priestly aristocracy. And we may come to recognize that efficiency corrupts Christian testimony more subtly than power"(103). He then concludes that "the less efficient she is as a power the more effective she can be as a celebrant of. . . the experience of change" (134). Such change is what he believes the church should be promoting, and that "neither efficiency nor comfort nor affluence are criteria for the quality of change" (136). In short, efficiency gets in the way of bringing about the kingdom of God.

Stylistically, some of the writings still retain a number of English grammar mistakes, and on occasion the prose is difficult to penetrate. Sometimes, the independent essays make quick and awkward transitions from idea to idea, topic to topic, as if perhaps they began as a collection of notes that were haphazardly thrown together to form an essay.

Yet surprisingly this style can be fortuitous, for example, bearing the fruit of unexpected turns of phrase and metaphors that the typical scholar of theology, cultural theory, or religion never would have imagined. Illich refers (ever with wit) to how the Catholic Church is threatened by "spiritual birth control," "American Ecclesiastical salesmen," and the "new no-theism." He prefers instead, and taunts his readers to consider more deeply the "mother church's body smell," "healthy guilt feelings," and "God incarnate in the scum."

It is doubtful that this collection would be appealing for scholars to dedicate themselves to it for in-depth academic scrutiny. But that was never Illich’s intention. Instead, as "a phenomenological essay" (88), the work seeks to overcome the constant posturing of  academia, which today often is trapped by the very thing Illich critiques to be running rampant within his church—"efficiency." For this reason, and for others, I highly recommend the book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason W. Alvis is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Vienna.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ivan Illich (1926–2002), a philosopher, theologian, and historian, was considered one of the most important and lucid thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. He was the author of several books, including Celebration of AwarenessMedical NemesisGender, and In the Vineyard of the Text. He was Visiting Professor of Philosophy, Science, Technology and Society at Penn State University in the 1980s and 1990s.


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