Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Christian Theologian of Zion

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Christian Theologian of Zion

Article excerpt

Israel could not have hoped for as passionate an admirer as Fr. Marcel-Jacques Dubois, this most Israeli of traditionalist Catholic theologians, yet received at the same time almost as passionate a critic. His story and its theological legacy bring into sharp relief some of the permanent obstacles in Jewish-Christian relations.

Born in 1920 into a traditional Catholic family in rural France, at the age of eighteen he asserted his independence of spirit by joining the Dominican Order. Together with fourteen of his Dominican brothers, during the war he helped conceal Jewish children within the walls of Catholic institutions. At the request of the order, he spent the last forty-five years of his life as a Christian thinker on the Jewish question and a senior Church envoy to the Jewish state.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII pronounced to the Second Vatican Council that "the Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world." It was in this spirit of mediating tradition with the challenges of the twentieth century that the forty-two-year-old Dubois, recognized as a gifted theologian and scholar of Thomas Aquinas, was tasked by his superiors with strengthening the Catholic presence in Israel.

Having lived during the Holocaust, Dubois regarded the establishment of Israel as profoundly improbable and nearly sublime. Submitting himself almost as a pilgrim to the common experience of immigrants to Israel, he succeeded in mastering the Hebrew culture, and more gradually in cultivating a deep familiarity with Israeli academic and intellectual life. His first permanent Israeli home was the small but later influential West Jerusalem Dominican community, the House of Saint Isaiah.

Established a few years earlier by Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk of Jewish origin, Isaiah House was intended to be a center for Christian-Jewish dialogue, a muchneeded sanctuary for Israeli converts to Catholicism, and a retreat for Christian contemplation of the "mystery of Israel." In distinction to what was widely regarded in Israel as the heavily Arabist bias of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the members of Isaiah House shared a passion for wrestling with the theological meaning of Israel for the believing Christian. The gentle and disarmingly charismatic Dubois rapidly became the leading figure of the community.

More gradually, he also became a powerful presence in Israeli intellectual life. By 1968, he had been appointed professor of philosophy at the country's flagship Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he later headed the department. His introductory class on Christianity was a perennial favorite with students, attracting hundreds each semester.

During these early years, he immersed himself in engaging and contemplating all things Israeli, and was outspoken whenever he perceived Church bias against Israel. In response to accusations circulating in 1971 that Israel was driving Christians from the newly conquered territories of the West Bank, Dubois publically and emphatically denied the charge.

But his most fundamental concern was to overcome old assumptions about Judaism's relation to the Christian faith. For centuries, Christians had for the most part maintained that the historic mission of the Jewish people was to prepare the way for Jesus. After Jesus' arrival, the Jews were sometimes understood to have exhausted their historical function, or as St. Augustine argued, to persist as a suffering and scattered witness of their sinful rejection of the new covenant. As Dubois explained, "the Church experiences paralysis because it recognizes only the wandering Jew, whereas the Jewish nation and the state of Israel find no place in Christian theology."

In response to precisely this problem-the problem of accounting for the successful Jewish ingathering from exile-Dubois long devoted himself to developing a theology of the people of Israel from a Christian perspective. …

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