While medicine, government and education keep working to prevent AIDS and minister to its victims, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York offers his solution: a theology of condoms.

Acting on the Vatican's view that God is offended by rubbers -- it's a mortal sin to use them, with an eternity of hellfire awaiting the disobedient -- O'Connor is making a public issue of condoms and AIDS. In mid-December, he criticized a statement from his own U.S. Catholic Conference that sanctioned the mentioning of condoms in AIDS education programs. "We are not promoting the use of prophylactics," the document said, "but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture."

Such a view -- coming as part of a 7,700-word statement so many years and deaths late as almost to be irrelevant -- was put down by O'Connor as a "very grave mistake." It was causing "serious confusion."

O'Connor was the confused one. Many of his brother bishops believed the conference's statement on AIDS was fine and, in the words of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, "sensitive to the human dimensions of the issue."

Since O'Connor's intrusion into a medical issue where he has no expertise and not a prayer, it appears, of gaining any, the public has been treated to a churchly debate over condoms. Bishops have been issuing clarifications on what the statement intends or portends. On Dec. 29, Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, the president of the conference, backed the original document. Brother O'Connor was rebuffed.

This go-around borders on the madcap. Here's a group of unmarried celibate males arguing about a device that presumably none use and whose apocalyptic exhortings to those who do, Catholic couples included, have never been much heeded.

Until now, the bishops haven't liked condoms because they prevent conception. Dr. Ruth, or perhaps a yet to be discovered Sister Ruth, needs to tell the John O'Connors that sex between males isn't about conceiving babies. The church may declare homosexual sex sinful, and warn that it means more business for hell, but can there be a double sin -- eternity plus a million years -- when a gay puts on a Trojan?

This rectory fracas would be good for a laugh, or rate only a weary sigh, except that it adds one more insult to those dying and suffering from AIDS. O'Connor, a narrow-minded legalist-moralizer far out of his depth in any public health issue as complicated as AIDS, has detracted from the valuable work that many church people are doing in this field. In his prevenient way, O'Connor believes, as do other simplifiers, that AIDS would be no problem if people would only behave.

The cardinal enjoys his bully pulpit. Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic running for vice president in 1984, was attacked by O'Connor because her political stance on abortion wasn't the church's position. O'Connor, a registered Republican, has also criticized another Catholic Democrat, Sen. Daniel Moynihan of New York, for his abortion views.

In the tamer ring of church politics, the overruling by Archbishop May is only the latest instance of O'Connor's wandering off on his own. In 1981, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a 5,000-word statement on Central America saying that the Reagan policies of "military responses" are "profoundly mistaken." In a 250-6 vote on the statement, O'Connor stood with the minority.

Two years later when the bishops issued a pastoral letter on nuclear war, O'Connor repeatedly offered weakening amendments during the three draftings. Just as repeatedly, the majority of bishops rejected them.

Despite these losses in peace issues in 1981 and 1983, O'Connor was succeeding among a more sympathetic group, the military. He became a chaplain in 1953 and rose to a rear admiral in the Navy. His military honors included an award for creating the "Navy Moral Leadership Program." In 1981 in a book titled "In Defense of Life," he preached in favor of the just-war theory. On the question of whether the use of tactical nuclear weapons can be justified, O'Connor, never in short supply of answers to please his Pentagon patrons, said "perhaps," which, in theological lingo, is as good as yes.

How is it possible that a churchman whose ideas on major moral and public issues -- from Central America to AIDS -- are regularly rejected by his peers ascended to become the cardinal archbishop of New York? Divine guidance isn't needed to figure it out. A Vatican currently controlled by reactionaries would naturally empower a reactionary.

On AIDS, the American bishops appear ready to move ahead without the cardinal. As for the rest of the public, there is more to be learned about compassion for AIDS patients from Elizabeth Taylor than John O'Connor.