When Michael Novak believed two years ago that some of the Catholic bishops were wrong in their opposition to American militarism, he bashed them as "extremists" who "know that what they are doing is political and divisive." Apocalyptically, he said of the bishops who were then preparing a pastoral letter on war and peace: "Men and women of conscience will have to resist them with every force of intellect they possess. For the good name of Catholicism is also at stake."

Novak's alarmism -- which was vented in no fewer than 12 articles in 1982 -- went for nothing. The following year, the bishops' antinuclear letter enhanced -- not besmirched -- the name of Catholicism. Novak, ablaze with fiery talk about "the threat of Soviet military blackmail" and "U.S. strategic nuclear inferiority," made a case that few bishops found either moral or rational. Since then, the hierarchy has gone on to establish peace-studies programs in parishes and schools so that consciences can be shaped by both church teaching and reliable information.

Having failed to discredit the churchmen as peace bishops, Novak is now after them as poverty bishops. He claims that the first draft of their letter on Catholic social teaching and the American economy "goes far beyond moral principles." The tone "is often whiney and ungenerous, as the political left is wont to be." It is "backward-looking."

Another 12 articles may well be on the way, but this time Novak lacked the basic fair-mindedness to let the bishops have their say before he jumped on stage with his views. A week before the hierarchy's letter was offered, Novak came in with a report by a newly formed "Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy." As the main author of the report, Novak rotates old crops: Multinational corporations "are among the most creative institutions of the modern era," "the causes of wealth need explanation as the causes of poverty do not," and "poverty is not primarily a problem for the state. Government programs are most successful when they empower citizens and local associations to solve their own problems."

The report from Novak and such other commission authorities on the poor as Alexander Haig, William Simon, Walter Hickel and Clare Boothe Luce made no converts among the bishops. It was a choice between Michael Novak's sanctification of capitalism and the centuries-old tradition of Christian social justice as found in such enduring encyclicals as Populorum Progressio and Mater et Magistra and in the latest statement of Pope John Paul II: "The needs of the poor must take priority over the desires of the rich, and the rights of workers over the maximization of profits."

That thought is given little regard by a commission that urges trust in the desires of the rich and sees goodness in their maximizing of profits. As an employe of the American Enterprise Institute, an $11.5 million-a-year conservative think tank that receives funds from more than 600 corporations, Novak has been as busy as an altar boy as he sprinkles holy water in profuse blessings on the economic beliefs of his patrons. In a 1981 work called "Toward a Theology of the Corporation," he listed seven "signs of grace in the corporation." In these "seven ways, corporations offer metaphors for grace, a kind of insight into God's ways in history."

Until Novak, no one, not even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, went that far. The distance is even greater considering where Novak started. In 1971, as a left-of-left liberal, he was scorning corporations for stifling the souls of workers: They "divide one's personal autonomy from one's corporate role. They divide one's creativity, imagination, feelings, and hopes from one's performance for the company."

In those days, Novak, who had spent 12 years in a seminary, brimmed with zeal for an open church and an open society. He had produced "A Theology for Radical Politics" and wrote speeches for the McGovern campaign. He had a fixation back then on lecturing bishops. They were too conservative and too timid, he wrote, and "hardly ever recognize their own complicity in the evils of modern life."

Novak did the recognizing for them. They shouldn't see "secularism" as a "dirty word," he told them. Last week, forever hard to please, he was denouncing the bishops for their "secular intellectual framework."

In preparing their statement on the economy and the poor, the bishops heard from more than 100 people. Being men of patience, and perhaps penance, they gave Novak three turns to speak, which was more than anyone else. Either the hierarchy was incredulous over what Novak said the first two times or it sought more proof that God is a capitalist. In any case, the bishops weren't buying, at least not from Novak's record of flip-floppery.