"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ivan Illich and Erich Fromm on the Corrupt Church

I've started working on a long essay on what we still have not learned from Erich Fromm, the 40th anniversary of whose death we will shortly mark. I think, and hope to show, that he has much to teach Catholics in particular in the sex abuse crisis, about which I published my new book several months ago now. In that book, Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, I drew on Fromm a little bit (and other psychoanalytic critics), but I want to expand that focus in this new essay.

Part of what has motivated me is finally being able to do a serious reading of Lawrence Friedman's magisterial biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love's Prophet, where he notes that while Fromm wrote many books that sold millions of copies, and are still in print today, he has nonetheless been largely ignored by North American academics (those in other parts of the world are a different story).

As I've been discovering this is true, a fortiori, of academic theologians, especially Catholics and Orthodox theologians. (Fromm got some attention in the post-war period from Protestants, but most of that dried up long before he died.) This is all the stranger given how many books Fromm wrote on topics so obviously and overwhelmingly amenable to theology: love, hope, sin, freedom, illusion, idolatry, and much else.

His 1941 book Escape from Freedom is one I am also re-reading, and it has key insights also unassimilated by Catholics, but very much in need of being considered today as I shall show.

In going back to Fromm as I am doing, I realized I also have to go back to Ivan Illich, sometime Catholic priest and powerful critic of many social institutions, including churches and schools. I read his Deschooling Society in the 90s, and it has remained with me as a singular challenge.

I also spy a new collection of his writings that I'm looking forward to reading: The Powerless Church, just republished late last year. About this book the publisher tells us this:
Dalmatian-Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and radical cultural critic Ivan Illich is best known for polemical writings such as Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, which decried Western institutions of the 1970s. This collection brings together Illich’s shorter writings from his early publications through the rise of his remarkable intellectual career, making available works that had fallen into undue obscurity.
A fervent critic of Western Catholicism, Illich also addressed contemporary practices in fields from education and medicine to labor and socioeconomic development. At the heart of his work is his opposition to the imperialistic nature of state- and Church-sponsored missionary activities. His deep understanding of Church history, particularly the institutions of the thirteenth century, lent a historian’s perspective to his critique of the Church and other twentieth-century institutions.
The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, 1955–1985 comprises some of Illich’s most salient and influential short works as well as a foreword by philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Featuring writings that had previously appeared in now-defunct publications, this volume is an indispensable resource for readers of Illich’s longer works and for scholars of philosophy, religion, and cultural critique.

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