Sticklers for rules, and believers in eternal hell as a place for those who break them, have questions for Cardinal John O'Connor. What's he waiting for? When is he going to become the Great Excommunicator and throw out of his archdiocese Catholic politicians who support abortion rights? The New York churchman scolds them and warns them. But he doesn't bounce them.

O'Connor, a former military chaplain, uses his authority like a general threatening dishonorable discharge: "Where Catholics are perceived not only as treating church teaching on abortion with contempt, but help to multiply abortions by advocating legislation supporting abortion, or by making public funds available for abortion, bishops may decide that ... such Catholics must be warned that they are at risk of excommunication. If such actions persist, bishops may consider excommunication the only option."

O'Connor's views on abortion, which are shared by many citizens who aren't Catholic, are sound. I agree with them. Destroying life before birth is as violent as destroying it after. It's O'Connor's tactics that are disastrous.

To date, his threats of excommunication represent ecclesiastical bluffing, with Catholic politicians routinely calling that bluff. In the O'Connor-provoked noise, where's the gain in helping women to find alternatives to abortion?

In Texas, sticklers have their enforcer in Bishop Rene Gracida. It was announced last week that he's thrown out a woman who runs a clinic in which 2,000 abortions are performed annually, an estimated 40 percent of them for Catholics. The bishop wrote to the clinic director: "Your cooperation in producing abortions is a sin against God and humanity and against the law of the Roman Catholic Church."

Despite this heave-ho, the Texas bishop shares the quandary of O'Connor in New York: how far to take excommunication? Are all Catholics who have, perform, fund or vote for abortion to be run off? Pope John Paul II, in his first speech to the U.S. hierarchy on his American visit in October 1979, was not a mincer: "Our leadership will be effective only to the extent that our own discipline is genuine."

There it is. The men running the church want it to be an institution of laws, fear and punishment. Do it our way or else. Poping and bishoping equal bossing. On his second visit to the United States, in 1987, the Holy Father from Rome said that the church is "the sacrament of salvation for the whole human race," a statement that must come as news to the world's Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Moslems and others of different creeds.

A put-up-your-dukes hierarchy that labels people sinners and tells dissenting politicians they are risking hell appeals to a small band of churchmen nostalgic for the days when canon law had no loose canons and the fear of hell kept the faithful in line. One of these nostalgists is Monsignor George A. Kelley of St. John's University. He calls himself "a consultant to the Holy See."

In "Keeping the Church Catholic With John Paul II," published this month, the monsignor pines: "Who hears stirring sermons today on the four last things -- death, judgment, heaven and hell. These are not often spoken in polite Catholic circles. Nor do we with any regularity indict Christians today for their sinful choices or speak of God's indignation over sin, unless it be the wrongdoing the secular society already holds in disfavor. We find sin more in social structures, and if we happen upon outrageous conduct, we are more likely to call the offenders 'weak' or 'sick,' than to say they are sinners."

This call to the barricades of authority has more and more champions in the U.S. hierarchy, as appointees of John Paul II gain power. It promises to get uglier. In Dialogue, a blustery right-wing student magazine at Notre Dame, Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York went beyond railing that Mario Cuomo risks hell because of his abortion views. The governor's position, said the bishop, "seems very much like a soldier in the German Army at the time of the Nazis, who said he was personally opposed to killing Jews, but that this was a decision to be made by the government."

So now the politicians are Nazis, as are, presumably, other Catholics of conscience who differ from the hierarchy. Perhaps a Ninth Beatitude is needed for the O'Connor-Vaughan wing of the church: Blessed are the excommunicators for they shall inherit the kingdom of rules.