Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders said this week in Washington that painful as it has been, the summer's bruising controversy over Austrian President Kurt Waldheim's Vatican visit will eventually lead to deeper levels of understanding between the two religious communities.

"We have reached a new level of dialogue, no question about it," said Seymour D. Reich, international president of B'nai B'rith. "There's no turning back the clock."

But by confronting the differences that erupted during "the long hot summer of 1987," said Eugene Fisher, secretary for Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "the relationships were ultimately strengthened."

Fisher and others addressed a symposium of Catholic and Jewish leaders called by B'nai B'rith International to evaluate the summer's bitter confrontations.

In June, Jewish groups reacted with pain and outrage to Pope John Paul II's reception of Waldheim, who is accused of lying about his role as a German army officer in rounding up Jews and others for deportation to death camps during World War II.

Hastily arranged meetings with Jewish leaders at the Vatican and with the pope at his summer residence forestalled a threatened boycott of the long-scheduled, largely ceremonial meeting of Jews with the pope in Miami during his September visit to the United States.

Participating in the seminar in Washington were five of the nine members of the American delegation who took part in the Rome talks. That dialogue, "in which we said everything that was on our minds, took us to a new plateau," said Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who headed the group.

Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, praised agreements emerging from the meetings with the pope and Vatican officials: the Vatican's pledge to issue a major statement on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and the development of a special mechanism at the Vatican to improve contacts and collaboration with the world Jewish community.

But Jewish leaders were disappointed in the lack of progress in a longstanding concern, namely the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See.

Although many in leadership positions "have reason to feel that great progress was made" in the high level talks, Waxman said, many in the Jewish community "are skeptical . . . . They feel the Catholic Church's changes simply echo obvious truths . . . .

"A great many Jews didn't feel these represent terribly much in the way of concessions. It's like saying Galileo was right. What we are hearing {from some in the Jewish community} is the question, 'Do they really mean it?' "

Fisher noted that such skepticism is "all too validly grounded in thousands of years of Jewish history," which included forced conversions of Jews and virulent anti-Semitism fueled by theological perceptions of Jews as Christ-killers.

All that changed with the Second Vatican Council and the issuance in 1965 of a watershed document, Nostre Aetate. In the document the church exonerated Jews, as a people, from the responsibility for Christ's death, denounced anti-Semitism and called for dialogue with the Jews. The document opened a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Part of the bitterness over the Waldheim visit grew out of the sharp sense of betrayal Jews felt over what they perceived as John Paul's insensitivity to Jewish sufferings in the Holocaust and fears that the era of the dialogue was ended.

Roman Catholic Bishop William Keeler of Harrisburg, chairman of the bishops' committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the church had adopted Nostre Aetate "so that never again could Christain teaching be used to justify the kind of horror that the Holocaust was."

Nevertheless, he said, American Catholics were "surprised at the violence of the reaction" of Jews to the Waldheim visit. The vehemence of the Jewish response caused "an enormous emotional reaction among Catholic people who could not understand why it was so strong."

The new, deeper level of Catholic-Jewish dialogue that leaders said emerged from last summer was reflected in the candor with which both sides at the B'nai B'rith seminar approached painful questions.

Keeler explained that the verbal assaults by Jewish leaders on the pope, "who is for us the Holy Father," not only offended Catholic religious sensibilities but also fanned long-smoldering flames of Catholic feelings of misunderstanding by Jews.

For example, since Vatican II, Catholic schools have worked to implement the teachings of Nostre Aetate and to stamp out all forms of anti-Semitism, Keeler said.

"Any number of surveys have shown that our graduates have a very good attitude toward Jews and other minorities -- better than the public schools," Keeler said. "Yet our people have the perception that Jewish organizations have opposed aid to Catholic schools, using the hard-line separation of church and state approach."

"I am puzzled about how you can be puzzled" at the vehemence of the Jewish protests against "the pope hugging Waldheim and calling him a 'man of peace' " in the Vatican audience, Rabbi Rosalind Gold of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation said to Keeler.

From the Catholic side, Fisher criticized sharply "the full-page ad in the New York Times to smear the pope." The advertisement remains "a very major issue . . . raising questions we're not done with yet," he said.

"What I appeal to, instead of full-page ads . . . is to sit down together and discuss," Fisher said.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interfaith affairs director for B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, said it was time to expand the Catholic-Jewish conversations.

"We need to take the dialogue to the pews," he said. "It's easy for theologians to get together and talk to each other."

"Great progress has been made over the past 20 years," said Waxman in summing up the issues. "We need to acknowledge that in talking about things which haven't been done."

He said that in the long run "the fact is the tone of {the meetings in} Rome, the tone of Castel Gondolfo, the tone of Miami is a very positive tone."