So what?

This declaration has reinvented the wheel, and at very great expense. I will use the example of Jewish-Catholic relations to illustrate why.

I do not remember the exact rates that The New York Times charges for a full-page advertisement, but it is in the neighborhood of $100,000. At this price, those who have published the statement are telling the world what we have known for more than 30 years. At that time, the Second Vatican Council, which had been called by Pope John XXIII and worked in his spirit, declared that the church was no longer at war with Judaism and had nullified the "teaching of contempt."

The Jewish reaction to this decision was to hail it as a major step forward and to agree that the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity could now be left undecided until the time of the Messiah, when we will be able to ask him whether this was his first or second visit to humanity. In the here and now, both sides would agree that our prime task is to work together for the moral betterment of mankind, to defend the defenseless wherever they might be.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, the Vatican and the leading Jewish organizations agreed to establish, for the first time in history, a formal and ongoing consultation as equals. The task that was set before these two delegations was twofold: to define a joint approach to the task of improving the welfare of society, and to try to deal with the wrongs that had been inflicted on Jews throughout history--and especially in the era of the Holocaust.

The first meeting of this unprecedented consultation took place in Paris, at the synagogue which was the seat of the chief rabbinate of France. The head of the Vatican delegation was the Archbishop of Marseilles, Roger Etchegaray (who is now a cardinal in Rome), and I had the honor of chairing the Jewish one. At that meeting, and at the several dozen encounters since then through the years, the premise has been clearly established, over and over again: We respect each other's theological differences; we regard the existence of the other religious community as a good; and we keep trying to increase the areas in which we can work together as brothers.

The difficulties that have faced us have not been theological, nor have we found radical differences in moral values. Our disagreements have stemmed from our differing historical memory. Even now, the question of responsibility and guilt for doing too little to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust is not yet resolved. Even now, the church wants to canonize Pope Pius XII, whose record during the Holocaust Jews continue to question. Just the other day, the Vatican beatified Pius IX, the pope who refused to return a child, Edgar Mortara, who had been taken away from his Jewish parents because a maid had secretly baptized him.

"Good will" always seems to be in fashion, and those who pronounce themselves to be on its side can bask in the sunlight of their virtue. But why spend $100,000 to reassert yesterday's news? Today's news is the Vatican of the present. It has done many good things, but those good deeds are not the end of the story. Today's Vatican also received Kurt Waldheim--the international pariah who was president of Austria and an accused Nazi war criminal--in state, and it has just now announced that Pius IX is one step away from being named a saint. The interfaith group in Baltimore should go back to the drawing board and think deeply about contemporary reality.

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