When Pope Benedict XVI delivers a speech at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex in Poland on May 28, his words will be scrutinized by those who want the Vatican to acknowledge that centuries of church teachings paved the way for the Holocaust. In the same vein, stepped up efforts by some Catholic activists to have Pope Pius XII declared a saint are sure to be met with resistance by critics who believe that the late pontiff did not do enough to confront the Nazis or save Jews during the war.

It would be a mistake for the Jewish community to fall back on old habits by turning either matter into a major point of contention with the church. Instead, following a long process of reform and reconciliation, the time has come for a new approach to Jewish-Catholic relations, one focused more on finding ways to work together to improve the world's future than hashing out the injustices of the past.

During the past four decades, the Roman Catholic church took several revolutionary steps to cleanse itself of anti-Semitic teachings and attitudes. In the process, a much more profound transformation occurred: As the Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi has put it, in just one generation Catholic doctrine went from viewing the Jews as a cursed people who rejected Jesus to a blessed people who remain God's chosen people. The first major shift came in 1965, when the Second Vatican Council adopted "Nostra Aetate," the revolutionary document that renounced the charge that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.

In subsequent years, during the quarter-century pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the church took several groundbreaking steps, including the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. John Paul II became the first pontiff to pray in a synagogue and the first to visit Israel, and affirmed that Judaism represented an ongoing covenant with God. He declared anti-Semitism a sin, acknowledged the failure of many Catholics to fight the Holocaust, and apologized for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

Many of these steps could not have been taken without the support of the current pope, who was then Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for safeguarding Catholic beliefs. Since being elected pope last year, he has signaled his commitment to ensuring that the reforms of recent decades regarding Judaism and the Jews become permanent features of the church. Last year, during a trip to his native Germany, Benedict XVI paid a visit to a synagogue, this one in Cologne, where he prayed for victims of the Holocaust. In addition to his visit to Auschwitz-Berkenau, he is said to be considering an Israel trip next year.

Such gestures and reforms cannot erase centuries of crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms, or absolve earlier generations of church leaders for their misdeeds. But they do demand that Jews take a new, forward-looking approach to the Vatican.

Some organizations, most notably the World Jewish Congress (led by former beverage magnate Edgar Bronfman and Rabbi Israel Singer), have already begun charting such a course. Several years ago, in response to the economic collapse in Argentina, the WJC, a coalition of Jewish communities from around the world, worked with the Catholic church to set up joint assistance programs to aid Jews and Catholics who were hit hard by the crisis.

Benedict, who in his previous post played a key role in securing a Vatican endorsement of the joint initiative, is clearly committed as pope to expanding Jewish-Catholic humanitarian efforts. At a meeting set to take place next November in Cape Town, South Africa, Jewish leaders and representatives of the church are expected to settle on a proposal for helping to fight AIDS in Africa. For those pushing the humanitarian approach, the goal is to replicate the process that unfolded following Nostra Aetate, with high-level Jewish-Catholic talks eventually spurring local religious leaders to expand grassroots efforts at interfaith dialogue. Eventually, the hope is, local Jewish and Catholic communities around the world will be inspired to come up with their own joint initiatives.

Already, under the banner of the Save Darfur Coalition, Jewish and Catholic activists (along with Protestants and members of other faiths) are working together to stop mass killings in the Sudan.

Such joint efforts should also be directed to issues closer to home. For example, in Los Angeles, where the archdiocese has staked out a courageous position in defense of aiding illegal immigrants, Jewish and Catholic leaders could stay true to their deepest traditions by making common cause in establishing programs to help newcomers in their quest to establish a better life in America. In many cities throughout the country, the two communities could create a new paradigm for transcending longstanding divisive debates over abortion by joining forces to provide prenatal care for working-class women, while also pushing to strengthen foster care and adoption services.

In his speech at Auschwitz-Birkenau this weekend, the pope certainly has the power to further heal the wounds of the past and demonstrate his commitment to upholding John Paul II’s legacy. But it is a new model of interfaith partnership—from the soup kitchens Argentina to the hospitals of Africa—that should guide the future of relations between Jews and Catholics.

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