THE CATHOLIC MOMENT The Paradox of the Church In the Postmodern World By Richard John Neuhaus Harper & Row. 292 pp. $19.95

RICHARD NEUHAUS, a Lutheran theologian, is widely recognized as one of America's premier commentators on the role of religion in public life. His most recent work, The Catholic Moment, constitutes a major contribution to this field. Elegantly written and closely reasoned, the book has as its central thesis that this is the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church "can and should be the lead church in proclaiming and exemplifying the Gospel" to the world. Within the American context, this can also be the moment in which the Catholic Church in the United States takes a leading role in our national life by making its distinctive contribution to the formation of American culture and the rearticulation of its public philosophy.

But why should this particular moment be the Catholic moment, and why should Neuhaus, as a Lutheran, be so desirous of drawing our attention to it? Part of the reason is that the Catholic Church, simply by virtue of "its size, tradition, structures, charisma and energies," cannot help but play a very substantial role in shaping the future of Christianity. Even more important, however, is the new ecumenical climate that has arisen since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). For at Vatican II, the council fathers advanced a more inclusive conception of the Church of Christ, one which was in no way limited to the ecclesial boundaries of Roman Catholicism. While insisting that the Church of Christ "subsists" in the Roman Catholic Church "in a most singular manner," the Council nonetheless affirmed that all baptized Christians "are brought into a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church."

The ecumenical significance of this declaration is enormous. For it suggests the possibility of a renewal of Christian unity amid denominational diversity, i.e., a scenario in which the various branches of Christianity can unite concerning the fundamentals of Christian faith while retaining much of their distinctive religious traditions. It also means that the concerns of the Catholic Church now become the concerns of all Christians; that the "testing and trials" facing Catholicism today are paradigmatic of those facing all Christians.

Neuhaus goes on to discuss at some length the various challenges that confront contemporary Catholicism, focusing, among other things, on the competing interpretations of Vatican II, the diminished sense of the supernatural, the problem of doctrinal dissent and the emergence of Marxist-inspired theologies of liberation in Latin America. Underlying all of these various issues, Neuhaus believes, are differing ways of understanding the relationship between the Church and the world, a relationship which he thinks must necessarily be one of paradox. For in Christian thought there is an unavoidable ambivalence toward the world, which is simultaneously seen both as a sphere of sin and corruption and as that realm so beloved of God that he sent his only son to redeem it.

THE CHIEF challenge facing Catholicism today therefore is to articulate a Christian humanism in which the proper value and autonomy of the temporal are acknowledged even as they are integrated within a broader, overarching concern for humanity's transcendent destiny. Neuhaus believes that Pope John Paul II, whom he describes as "the Christian humanist par excellence," is vigorously engaged in this very task. At the root of this effort is the pope's conviction that "the assurance of an eternal destiny is not distraction from but empowerment for worldly tasks." To the extent, therefore, that the Church is successful in penetrating the world with the Gospel, it will awaken not only a renewed awareness of our need for God in Christ, but a deeper recognition of human dignity and the value of human activity.

Toward the end of the book Neuhaus considers the prospects for the Catholic moment within the American context. Here he contends that religious values have a vital part to play in the renewal of our national consensus about the purposes of public life, and that with the declining influence of mainline Protestantism, the Catholic Church is well-suited to take the lead in this regard. Catholicism's natural-law approach to moral and political discourse contrasts sharply with the rather sectarian scriptural approach adopted by evangelical Protestants, and provides the sort of mediating concepts and language on which some form of consensus might be achieved. Unfortunately, however, Neuhaus sees a tendency among Catholics to abandon this rich intellectual tradition as they become more integrated in American society. He further believes that the American hierarchy has become captive to church bureaucrats of left-of-center political views, and that this accounts for the somewhat partisan character of recent episcopal pronouncements on military and economic affairs. If the Catholic tradition of reasoned public discourse exemplified by the late John Courtney Murray is not recovered, Neuhaus believes, then the Catholic moment in America may be lost.

While one may disagree with some of Neuhaus' specific claims -- his criticisms of the American hierarchy, for example, which strike me as being overstated -- he is to be commended for offering a profound and stimulating work which sets forth a new agenda, at once promising and plausible, for contemporary Catholicism. No one interested in the future of Catholicism or more broadly of Christianity should neglect this book.

William J. Gould Jr., a doctoral candidate in government at Georgetown University, writes frequently on church affairs.