In the United States, Christian ecumenism has taken an unexpected turn in the encounter between Catholics and the kind of Protestants variously called Evangelical or Fundamentalist, who tended historically to be anti-Catholic. Scarcely noticed at first, Evangelicals have replaced liberals as the dominant element within American Protestantism, and some Catholics were at first surprised to discover that they have more in common with Evangelicals than with many liberal fellow Catholics.

The new ecumenism often began with cooperation on practical moral issues like abortion but soon led to the realization that these moral principles are based on traditional Christian beliefs, including the divine authority of the scripture and the unchanging truth of the faith. Ecumenical prayer and Bible-study groups followed. Protestants of this kind are almost invisible in Europe, so that the Holy See has not engaged in formal dialogue with them. But in America there is significant ecumenical activity at the "grass roots" level, without anticipating formal reunion, activity that reveals the paradox that, to the degree that people hold strongly to their own beliefs and are unwilling to compromise, they may also respect others who hold equally strong beliefs. Ratzinger himself was praised by Evangelicals and severely criticized by liberals for issuing Dominus Jesus ("Lord Jesus"), a restatement of the classic Christian teaching that the world is saved solely through Christ.

The reality of religious liberty in a pluralistic society has changed in the decades since Vatican II, as some liberals now argue that the Church's stand on moral issues constitutes unwarranted "interference" in what should be a entirely secular society, that religious believers as such have no legitimate voice in pubic affairs. Some even demand that Church leaders, including the pope, be prosecuted for the "crime" of condemning abortion and homosexual activity. But Benedict has strongly reaffirmed the principle of religious liberty, even citing the American Revolution as marking a new stage in its development -- a government that favors no religion at the expense of others but is not hostile to any.

The protection of nature -- "environmentalism" -- is now perhaps the principal social and political issue facing the world. Like John Paul's "Theology of the Body," Benedict urges the protection of the environment on the basis of a "theology of Creation" -- the divine act from which the goodness and dignity of the world derives. Nature evolves not by blind chance but according to God's plan, and it is precisely man's divinely given stewardship that requires that nature be conserved and cherished.

The frontiers of morality now stand at a point that was mere science fiction at the time of Vatican II. Besides abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, the issues include surgically induced sex changes, artificial insemination, cloning, and the "creation" of life in laboratories. The crisis is metaphysical even more than moral, in that the very identity of humanity is being called into question by a seemingly irresistible, all-devouring technology and by human beings determined to deny any higher moral truth. Since the Enlightenment, secularists have accused the Church of being anti-humanist, because it subordinates man to God. But many secularists now reject humanism precisely because it places man at the summit of nature.

At its root, Benedict proclaims, the culture of death is nothing less than a refusal to accept the divine invitation to participate in the work of creation.

James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University and a Senior Editor of Touchstone Magazine. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life. He lives with his wife, the editor and writer, Helen Hull Hitchcock, in Saint Louis, Missouri. They have four daughters.