An archbishop regarded as a rising figure in the Roman Catholic hierarchy has declared that the declining influence of mainline Protestantism and divisive qualities of evangelicalism have presented a "Catholic moment" in the evolution of American democracy.

In a pastoral letter marking the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, Archbishop Francis Stafford of Denver called on fellow Catholics in the United States to take advantage of a historic opportunity to revive the moral and political traditions handed down by the nation's founding fathers.

The archbishop questions whether the liberal or conservative Protestant traditions can lead the country away from radical individualism and preoccupation with narrow self-interests.

"Culturally, we live in a moment when the churches of mainline Protestantism, whose profound influence on American self-understanding begins with the Puritans and continues down to the mid-20th century, seem less and less inclined to assume the lead in forming American culture," Stafford wrote.

"Evangelical Protestants, resurgent over the past generation, could conceivably take up the mainline's culture-forming role and will in any event be important partners in ecumenical dialogue over the next generation."

But evangelicals "are historically weak in working with mediating language and concepts in moral argument and lack a developed tradition of social-ethical reasoning," paving the way for "a Catholic moment in the ongoing and never-to-be completed evolution of the American experiment," the archbishop said.

Stafford pointed out that Catholics now comprise a quarter of the nation's population, are increasingly affluent and are no longer primarily immigrants wary of engaging in public issues.

As they work to revive civic virtue and a sense of the common good, he said, American Catholics have available to them the church's tradition of moral reasoning known as "natural law," which holds that there are moral and ethical laws common to all people.

"Our classic method of moral reasoning can bridge the chasms between believers and secularists, between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Jews."

Stafford contends that Christian medieval political theory, from which the Catholic Church draws some of its teaching, is in harmony with the American political tradition that teaches that the state's power must be limited, that freedom must go hand in hand with virtue and that human rights are not "benefits distributed by the state" but are inviolable.

Stafford said that any moral renewal in America must involve a strengthening of the family institution, enhancement of human dignity in the workplace and the promotion of democracy worldwide.

"The American third century needs a new ecumenism in which believing people reflect together on the public 'oughts' that they derive from their deepest religious commitments," he said.