IN TEXAS, THERE IS a priest named Brian Wallace who is the editor of the newspaper for the archdiocese of San Antonio, Today's Catholic. Wallace has routinely been using the newspaper to take positions in political matters, and the IRS has more or less routinely been telling him to stop or they'll take away his tax-exempt status. To this, the good padre replied, "NUTS!!!"

Aside from the number of exclamation points, there is nothing original about what Father Wallace is doing. He is giving the government the bird, a wonderful American tradition. But he is so wrapped up in his fight that he does not understand that if he was not taking a government handout in the first place (the tax exemption), the government would have no handle on him.

It is not that long a leap from Wallace to the abortion issue itself. The same principal is at work. So exercised have abortion proponents become over the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Hyde amendment, that they have failed to notice that the government is out of the abortion business. Now no one not even Rep. Henry Hyde, can complain about how their tax money is used. It is simply not being used for abortions any more.

Now, that is good news for the poor. When the court upheld the prohibition against using Medicaid funds for abortions, it effectively restricted abortions to those who could afford them.

That was the practical effect of the decision, and it is changed not one whit by the cynical observation that the poor always suffer. After all, suffering is something progressive societies try to alleviate.

But in giving the poor the elbow, in brushing them aside on its way to upholding the Hyde amendment, the court also managed to focus the abortion debate on abortion itself -- not on how tax money should be spent. It removed a genuine cause of outrage for abortion opponents. Their money, after all, was being used for something they considered morally reprehensible.

The problem, of course, has never really been the Hyde amendment nor Medicaid nor even, in a way, abortion itself. It is, instead, moral absolutism -- a view of the world that allows for no contradictions, no muddling, no ifs. Usually, religion brings this out in people, but abortion can, too. It is one of those issues about which there can be no compromise. You either think it's morally right or you don't. To put it a bit stronger, you either think it's murder or you do not.

If you think it's murder, you're against it, and if you think it's not murder, you're either for it or you can tolerate it. The point is that there can be no agreement on the issue. The middle ground that politicians so dearly love to find is missing here. It is, instead, a chasm.

In this sense, abortion is like what the Vietnam war was for some people -- another moral absolute. They considered it morally wrong, so evil, in fact, that other, lesser evils could be condoned in the fight against it. Thus, some people resorted to violence and others to bombings and some, like Joan Baez, to a Thoreau-like dissent on a very high, moral plane. She simply said she wasn't going to allow her tax money to be used to support a war she did not approve. There is a compelling logic to her stand.

If there is logic to Baez, there is logic to Hyde. Granted that Hyde's ultimate aim is to do away with abortion altogether, it's limited goal -- to eliminate Medicaid abortions -- makes some sense. It puts an end to the practice in which people were taxed to provide a service that they considered to be either the equivalent of, or the same as, murder.

Now the government is out of it, and abortion can be moved to that special place where we keep all the moral absolutes. We can put it up on a shelf and agree to disagree, but agree also to keep the government neutral, out of the picture, neither funding nor regulating nor taking sides. This is what we have done with religion. We recognize it, protect it, permit it, but take no sides. If the government did, we would all be brawling in the streets.

It should be the same with abortion. It's too contentious a question for the government to take a position. It is probably a good thing that the court has effectively moved it from a matter of public policy to private morality -- a question between a woman and her conscience. It's her decision, her body, and now thanks to Hyde, her money. If that's the case, it's also her business. Leave her in peace.