Snarly reactions are coming from some conservative Catholics about the new pro-peace positions expressed by some Catholic bishops in their recent meeting here. "We must not only condemn the nuclear madness but aggressively pursue works of justice," said one prelate.

Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, both Catholics and two of the staunchest preachers of the New Right gospel, told me of their disdain for the American bishops. Weyrich called them "truly ignorant" on political issues. Viguerie charged that "the Catholic hierarchy in America is becoming synonymous with liberal politics."

Grumbles are heard from the old right, too. The National Review, a Curia unto itself, ran an editorial titled "Bishops Take a Dive." The magazine sermonized that the bishops' condemnation of nuclear weapons means that "in effect" they "came out for appeasement and surrender."

It is understandable that the right is piqued. It wasn't so long ago that it had a powerful ally in purple, good Cardinal Spellman, the champion of military causes. Twenty-five years ago, many bishops were stridently anti-Communist, taking their lead from Pope Pius XII. In his 1956 Christmas message, Pius scoffed at the idea of even beginning a dialogue with the atheistic Reds: "What is the use of a discussion without a common language?"

The perceptions of Weyrich, Viguerie and the National Review are examples of stubborn ideology spectacularly negating calm analysis. The three blasts, more amusing than convincing, ignore what the second Vatican Council called for in the mid-1960s. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the leaders of the church were asked to reevaluate contemporary warfare.

If anything, the American bishops have been too slow and too tempered in fulfilling this call. Only one has asked workers at a munitions factory to think about finding new jobs. Only one bishop has suggested conscientious tax-resistance. And it was a Reagan-supporting bishop -- not one of Viguerie's dreaded liberals -- who persuaded his brother prelates to ask the Pentagon to rename a nuclear attack submarine that was christened last April the Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ).

These aren't nay-saying eccentrics suddenly babbling in new tongues. The bishops are reflective and morally schooled leaders who, properly terrified at Ronald Reagan's drive to "rearm America," are getting into the debate on peace. Cautiously, they are forming an opposition church that gives welcome signs that it may become a peace church. That should alarm only those who forget, or won't accept, that Christianity is based on the teachings of a radical pacifist.

Against the politics of nuclear strength, religious leaders are right to offer what the bishops call "a positive theology of peace." Against Alexander Haig's view that "there are more important things than being at peace," Archbishop Joseph Bernardin is right to say that "there are limits to the argument that, because our adversaries are considering something, we must be prepared to do it also."

In a climate in which few protests are heard about the rise in the military budget -- $214 billion this fiscal year, an increase of 24 percent over two years ago -- a dissent from an establishment institution like the American Catholic church is a much-needed summoning of nerve.

Why not weigh the bishops' thoughts, rather than, as the reactionary right does, stone them with useless insults? The bishops appear to be well in touch with the values found in their parishes. Two months ago, the National Council of Catholic Women -- a politically moderate federation of 8,000 local groups -- took the unprecedented action of approving a peace resolution: "Let us promise each other that we will work tirelessly for disarmament and the abolition of all nuclear weapons."

To ideologues, those words may sound ignorant, liberal and reeking of appeasement and surrender. They belong to Pope John Paul II.