In August 1958, Marie-Thérèse Lacaze arrived in Nazareth, captivated by the possibility of “drinking in from the very source the message of the Jewish Galilean Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth” (15). The 32-year-old had considered joining a convent in her native France but found herself desiring a more radical Gospel-oriented life. She read an article about Paul Gauthier, a French worker-priest attempting to unite Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land through the construction of housing co-operatives for laborers. Drawn to this vision, Lacaze decided to join Gauthier.
Together they founded the Companions of Jesus the Carpenter. The community lived in solidarity with the suffering and the poor, their prayerful reflections on the Gospel enriched by their geographic position in the land where Jesus himself had lived, prayed, and worked.
Marie-Thérèse would spend two decades in the Holy Land, years that would transform her entire worldview. Her 1979 memoir recounts the evocative story of her political radicalization and her ultimate disillusionment with Catholicism. The book, tellingly titled La fin des terres promises [The End of Promised Lands], is now out of print, but Lacaze’s story deserves to be unearthed for its insights into the tension between prophetic witness and institutional commitment.
Marie-Thérèse arrived in Israel with the Shoah in vivid, recent memory. She believed that the return of suffering and persecuted Jews to this Promised Land was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, drawing from sacred texts that she as a Catholic shared with Jewish people. She spent several months on a kibbutz, relishing communal life and her growing knowledge of Hebrew, which allowed her to dig deeper into the biblical texts she held dear. While supersessionism was an omnipresent problem in postwar Catholic/Jewish encounters, Lacaze seems to have fallen more into the camp of philosemitism: approaching Judaism with great respect and affection, emphasizing its spiritual unity with Catholicism while sometimes invoking essentialized and problematic tropes like the “suffering Jew.”
Yet on the kibbutz, she became increasingly aware of the displacement of the “Arabs” (a term she would eventually abandon in favor of “Palestinians”) who had lived on that land for centuries. Believing herself to be an ally to Jews, Lacaze was shocked that Jewish friends accused her of antisemitism when she raised these questions. It is no surprise that she describes herself as naïve and idealistic during her first years in the Middle East.
The Companions of Jesus the Carpenter (a name she later admits was chosen with “audacity or naïveté”) embraced the Gospel of “good news to the poor” as the ethos that structured their communal life. The community’s earliest iteration involved men laboring as construction workers alongside their Palestinian counterparts, while some women shared domestic tasks, such as caring for children and forming an embroidery co-op for unemployed women, and others labored in local factories. In 1963, they moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where they perceived an even greater need. While the Companions initially worked with Jews and Palestinians alike, their growing realization that Arab communities were disproportionately poorer because of displacement and disenfranchisement led them towards a life of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
A Transgressive Relationship
Early in her memoir, Marie-Thérèse remembers how Paul would visit the kibbutz while she was staying there. Rather casually, she remarks, “One would have to be blind not to see it; we loved each other; we didn’t hide this from ourselves and we didn’t hide it from others, even though in the Catholic milieu it was, still at that time, frowned upon for a priest to dare love a woman. But who will make a man and woman who love each other profoundly believe that they are doing something bad? We decided to live that love without falling back on it” (29-30).
It is astonishing how nonchalantly Lacaze mentions her romantic relationship with a priest, given that most Catholics would consider this to be a major transgression of ecclesial boundaries. Her use of the phrase “still at that time” makes it seem as if these rules and attitudes had shifted significantly by the time she was writing in 1979—but of course they hadn’t, and several generations later, this is still a Catholic taboo.
Eventually, Paul left the priesthood, and it seems they did marry. I hazard a guess that their marriage happened in the early 1970s, but Lacaze’s memoir notably does not mention it. Throughout the text, she uses the pronoun “we,” and it is often difficult to identify to whom she is referring – ordinarily it’s the larger group of Companions, but as chronology progresses, increasingly it is just she and Paul. This grammatical elision suggests that their life as a couple emerged organically from the broader context of community life. Eventually they adopted two children from Calcutta, whom they brought to the Middle East.
Perhaps Lacaze omits prurient details to avoid the appearance of scandal, although it seems just as likely that when faced with the horrors of poverty, violence, and injustice, ecclesial regulations concerning celibacy seemed far less important.
Marie-Thérèse’s relationship with Paul reveals the paradox of her relationship with Catholicism. This closeness with a priest drew her into an “insider” status to which few Catholic women have access. Their relationship was predicated on a deeply shared commitment to living out the Gospel in radical ways; the profundity of their Catholic faith served as the basis of their connection. Yet openly defying the Church’s discipline on priestly celibacy was a rejection of ecclesial authority. Lacaze experienced a profound disconnect between the Gospel and the institutional Church, even as the latter had introduced her to the former. Eventually the depth of her faith would lead her beyond the walls of the Church, but first she would find herself at the very epicenter of the institution.
The Other Promised Land
The beginning of the Second Vatican Council struck Lacaze and Gauthier as an opportunity to draw the Church and the wider world’s attention to the plight of the poor and oppressed, which they had been witnessing daily. They resolved to go the Council with Melkite bishop George Hakim, but they had doubts about what they might reasonably accomplish. As Lacaze puts it, “The institutional Church seemed so far from realities.” Well-meaning pontifical documents used the language of charity, but “would we be able to talk about the foundations of injustice?” (40).
They did find a group of sympathetic bishops and theologians, and thus the Church of the Poor Working Group was born. Most sources refer to Paul as the “secretary” of this unofficial but well-organized group, but Desmond O’Grady’s book-length account identifies Paul as the founder and Marie-Thérèse as the group’s secretary. Because he was a priest, and because he was a man, it is unsurprising that Paul’s work at the council is much better documented than Marie-Thérèse’s. This is not just the fault of historians; it is a reflection of the disparity of their lived experience.
Marie-Thérèse’s time at the Council was largely characterized by misogyny. While she was frequently at Paul’s side, because, as she put it, “our work was effectively the work of a couple,” it became clear that “the number of theologians or bishops who could simply speak with a woman, who were daring enough to risk the thought, was small” (41). The fact of an all-male, celibate priesthood rendered Marie-Thérèse doubly invisible: while the lack of female presence made clerics generally uncomfortable around women, her role as Paul’s partner would of course not be recognized, whether or not people had their suspicions. Dom Helder Camara seems to be an exception to this: he mentions Lacaze in conciliar letters, where in a footnote she is named “the faithful companion of Fr. Paul Gauthier.”
Upon final analysis, “the masculine structure of the council went hand in hand with the disdain for women and their absence from the council” (41). In Palestine, far from the scrutiny of the Vatican hierarchy, Marie-Thérèse and Paul functioned more as equals—she led the female Companions and he, the male Companions. But in Rome, at the epicenter of the institutional Catholic Church, their inequality was palpable.
Vatican II raised the profile of the Companions of Jesus the Carpenter. Lacaze remembered, “The recognition of [the Companions] by a few bishops at the council made it an ecclesial institution. It was a time of hope, mingled with illusions: we were still hoping that the Church could return to the authenticity of the Gospel in an absence of power and wealth. We did not understand in that moment that the root of the problem was the institution itself” (120).
The more time Lacaze and Gauthier were immersed among poor and oppressed communities and learned about the conditions that contributed to poverty and oppression, the more frustrated they became with the Catholic Church for aligning itself with the rich and the powerful.
This frustration came into sharp relief during a sojourn in Brazil, where they helped build worker co-ops. There, they witnessed the ravages of colonialism and capitalism, which gave them a framework to better comprehend what they observed in Palestine. There, too, Lacaze argued, a newer colonialist and capitalist endeavor was exploiting an entire people.
Upon their return to the Middle East, their disillusionment with the state of Israel reached a climax during the Six-Day War. They witnessed horrific violence against Palestinian civilians. Lacaze describes the “smell of death” all around them as they cared for injured children burned by napalm. As the Israelis captured Bethlehem and expelled the Arabs living there, Marie-Thérèse and Paul decided to migrate with the Palestinian refugees.
This moment, for Lacaze, required a reassessment of their entire worldview: “We were filled with sadness to the point of disgust with everything and with ourselves: all that we had done, all that we had said and thought up to this point, was nothing but dead leaves. We needed to take a step back, get away from this too-promised land.” As these atrocities unfolded before their eyes, they felt the bedrock of their religious perspective called into question: “Were many of the pages of the Bible merely the national history of a people who had committed, in the name of Transcendence, the worst massacres and expulsions of whole populations?” This was not simply a critique of an institution like the state of Israel or the Catholic Church. This was a reckoning with the very foundational narrative of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
Amidst this crisis, Lacaze and Gauthier resolved to share the Palestinian perspective with the West. They published a special edition of Temoignage chrétien in July 1967 titled “Jerusalem and the Blood of the Poor.” Eventually they took up residence among Palestinian refugees in South Lebanon. Solidarity with this community became their guiding principle.
Witnessing atrocities radicalized Lacaze and Gauthier both politically and ecclesially. The silence of the Church became damning in the face of such violence and poverty. While incrementally they had been inching away from the institutional Church, their break from the institution was formalized in 1971 when Paul published an open letter in Le Monde formally declaring that he was leaving the Church – not because he lost his faith, but because the Church was too connected to oppressive institutions.
The Vanity of All Promised Lands
Lacaze’s growing disillusionment with the state of Israel became inextricably bound up with her disillusionment with the Catholic Church. In her mind, both were institutions whose oppressive practices betrayed the high ideals on which they were founded. A paradox lies at the heart of this (de)conversion experience: the Gospel values of human dignity and solidarity that had drawn Lacaze to the Holy Land ultimately drove her away from the very Church that had instilled these values in the first place.
At the end of her memoir, Lacaze reflects, “We are not the masters of our desires. This one deepened, insatiable and profound, both attached to this land and yet delivered from it. Attached even still, because the wounds of the Palestinian people had become our own. Delivered too by gradually discovering the vanity of all promised lands” (187-188).
Lacaze’s experience of attachment to and deliverance from Palestine mirrors her experience with the Catholic Church. She felt a profound attraction to both spaces, fueled by a spiritual desire to be in solidarity with the suffering. In both spaces she witnessed institutions that failed to live up to their ideals, perpetuating oppression when they had promised liberation. Yet in these experiences of disillusionment, a hope remained, a desire to bear witness, to make it right, to stay, albeit in an increasingly marginal space. Ultimately, though, to remain faithful to that attachment, the thing that drew her there in the first place, she had to let disillusionment deliver her.
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