The turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church over abortion bubbled to the surface this week when bishops rebuked the small band of theologians and scholars who are struggling to make the case that Catholic doctrine can accommodate differing views on the issue.

Some Catholic theologians have argued that while abortion is always tragic, there are circumstances involving rape, incest, economic hardship or saving the life of a mother when abortion may be the lesser evil and thus morally justifiable.

". . . Such an opinion, however sincerely motivated, contradicts the clear and constant teaching of the church that deliberately chosen abortion is objectively immoral," Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco declared this week at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting here. "Abortion is not a legitimate moral choice," added Quinn.

The church holds that abortion is evil because it involves the taking of innocent life and that the survival of the fetus must always take precedence, even over the life of the mother.

"All Catholic theologians I know of," said J. Giles Millhaven, professor of religious studies at Brown University, "agree that every abortion is in certain respects a regrettable evil." But, he added, "few theologians hold as absolutely certain and beyond dispute that every abortion is morally wrong. Practically no Catholic theologian would say that."

The percentage of Catholics who support the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion has risen steadily. Today, only 10 to 12 percent of Catholics agree with church teaching that abortion is always wrong.

Confronting these realities, some theologians and scholars argue that what they term the "lived experience" of faithful Catholics must be considered in the development of the church's official teaching.

According to canon law, a Catholic who has an abortion is automatically excommunicated. She may be restored to the sacraments, at the discretion of her priest, through the process of reconciliation, as confession is now called in the church. But, as in the case of divorced Catholics, many deal with the problem through the "internal forum" -- between their consciences and God -- and never take the matter to their priests. Others, because of fear or embarrassment, simply drop out of the church.

A handful of dioceses have established programs to help women who have undergone abortions sort out both their emotions and their church status.

Theologian Ann Neale of Columbia calls the church's official teaching that abortion is always wrong "a very serious teaching. But what people don't undertand is that it's not an infallible issue" -- it has never been proclaimed by a pope as infallible -- "so in principle, it's open to further understanding and formulation."

Daniel C. Maguire of Marquette University questions what "official" means. "There's the 'teaching of the officials' and there's 'official teaching.' It's not like the National Football League, where the official teaching is that you have to gain 10 yards to make a first down," he said.

Maguire points out that the Second Vatican Council held more than 20 years ago that the church "is not constituted by the bishops alone, but by all of us. Even if the bishops are monolithic on some issues, it does not mean that the church is," he said.

Church teaching, he contends, stands "on a tripod" made up of the teaching of the hierarchy, the "sense of the faithful [laity] and the sense of the theologians." Without such correctives, Maguire said, Catholics would still be following the advice of 19th century Pope Leo XII, "who condemned vaccination because it flew in the face of God's judgment in inflicting smallpox on people because they were sinners."

In September, Maguire and nearly 100 other Catholic scholars released a statement, later reproduced in a newspaper ad, declaring that "a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics."

It was this statement that prompted the response by Quinn, who heads the Committee on Doctrine of the bishops' conference.

It called for "candid and respectful discussion on this diversity of opinion within the church." It urged that Catholics, whether in church or political arenas, "not be penalized by their religious superiors, church employers or bishops" for dissenting from the bishops' teachings. And it maintained that "Catholics should not seek the kind of legislation that curtails the legitimate exercise of the freedom of religion and conscience or discriminates against poor women."

The statement, which was subsequently denounced by church officials, was released at the height of the political controversy over New York Archbishop John O'Connor's contention that Catholic politicans were obligated by their faith to work to implement their religious beliefs into legislation.

Maguire is among a number of theologians who apply the doctrine of "probabilism" to the abortion question. Probabilism is defined in the Catholic Almanac as "a moral system for use in cases of conscience which involve the obligation of doubtful laws."

According to Maguire, the system was developed by 17th century theologians "to handle situations where a rigorous consensus on a moral matter begins to break down and people begin to ask when they may in good conscience act on the liberal dissenting view. This is precisely the situation with abortion today."

Probabilism also requires that in the case of doubt over the applicability of traditional moral laws, there must be "five or six reputable experts who approve a liberal dissenting view," Maguire said. "There are far more than five or six Catholic theologians today who permit abortion under a range of circumstances."

In his rebuke to the theologians, Quinn asserted that "Catholic theology does not allow the application of the theory of probabalism in cases which contradict church teaching or where the risk of taking life is present." Catholics, he reiterated, "are obliged to accept" the church's traditional teaching on abortion.

Marjorie Maguire, also a theologian, who joined her husband in signing the scholars' statement, disagrees with Quinn on several points. By taking the position that only the bishops and the pope determine doctrine, she said, "they are denying Vatican II, which said that all the people of God are the church. They go back to the old theology that treats the pope and the bishops as the church."

The overheated emotional climate that surrounds the abortion issue today, particularly in the Catholic Church, does not encourage the kind of rational dialogue that could lead to greater clarity.

Last June, for example, the Catholic Theological Society of America scheduled a workshop on abortion during its annual meeting here. The discussion of two scholarly papers was dominated by antiabortion activists who bitterly attacked the authors.

When it came time for general discussion, some of the leading theologians of the church sat uncharacteristically mute before one of the most achingly urgent questions of their faith. Later, a young Jesuit agonized privately over the pall of fear that had staunched the free flow of ideas. "Nearly every one of us is on the faculty of a seminary or a Catholic college," he said. "If I had spoken out, if I had questioned the official teaching, it would have been reported back to my superior and I would have lost my job."

Maguire said that when he and the other scholars released their September statement on "pluralism and abortion," an additional 75 priests and scholars indicated agreement with the message "but cannot sign because they fear losing their jobs." One who did sign, Anne Carr, who teaches theology at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, felt compelled to resign her post as one of the advisers to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee that is drafting a pastoral letter on women in church and society. She resigned after it became "apparent" that her endorsement "constituted an impediment to my membership for some of the bishops," she said.