LAST SUMMER, two members of the nation's Roman Catholic hierarchy made antiwar statements that set off a controversy within their church. In Seattle, Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen called on Catholics to withhold half of their federal income taxes as a protest against the U.S. arms buildup. In Amarillo, Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen called on workers at the nearby Pantex nuclear warhead assembly plant to "seek new jobs or something that they could do which would contribute to life rather than destroy it."

Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy interviewed the two "peace bishops" during the church's annual conference in Washington last month.

MCCARTHY: In reading your statements on peace, and their specificity, I get the impression that you are almost leaders of a missionary church. You are bringing a message to many people who haven't heard it before, or at least not forcefully. You are making some converts among the natives. And metaphorically, there is still a strong colonial power: the belief that our military might is justified, and the fact that the military is a major employer in our country.

HUNTHAUSEN: My response has been a bit late in coming, actually. My convictions have been with me for a number of years. I just didn't particularly feel comfortable in speaking out, though I have been saying and writing things locally for the last several years. ... I feel that people like Bishop (Thomas) Gumbleton (of Detroit), Pax Christi and such groups have been way out ahead and have been trying to get us to pay attention for a long while. If anyone is missionary in this effort, it would be people like that.

MATTHIESEN: My response came to a very particular situation. It involved a deacon of our church who works at Pantex, which is the final assembly point for all nuclear warheads in the United States. He had come to me with his wife and said, "We need spiritual guidance. We've come to the conclusion that what I'm doing at the plant is immoral. What do you say?"

That forced me to go back to the sources. I read the papal teachings, the Vatican declaration (on war and peace). I remember reading Bishop Hunthausen's statement: He was concerned about the building of the Trident submarine. I said to myself: Where do I stand? Fifteen miles from where I live, and I've lived there 33 years, there's this plant that assembles all the nuclear warheads in the United States. Then I had this very personal request for spiritual guidance. I said to myself that what I'm going to say to him would also apply to myself, to others.

I was truly amazed in the interest in my statement. It was a call to conscience, as it turned out. I wasn't thinking in grandiose terms.

MCCARTHY: How much of your thinking has seeped into the parishes of your dioceses?

HUNTHAUSEN: There have been people who have responded positively. They feel that the church is now more relevant in their lives. But there have also been people who have been frightened by it. People feel that this is not the role of the bishop.

MATTHIESEN: A number of people have called me -- both locally and nationwide -- to say that they are now proud again to be Catholics. I've had some -- young people -- tell me that they are returning to the church because they see it as now being relevant, not spending its time on nitpicking about little matters of rubric.... On the negative side, we had a United Catholic Appeal; I received one cancellation of a pledge from a man who said he could not in conscience fulfill his pledge. He totally disagreed with me. He said he would give his money to some kind of Moral Majority group.

HUNTHAUSEN: I've really been touched -- almost overwhelmed -- by the number of bishops who have gone out of their way to shake my hand, pat me on the back and say something to the effect, "I'm really glad about what you're doing. I might not agree with everything you're saying but it's got to be said and it's caused me to think more about my own responsibilities." Things like that.

MATTHIESEN: The number of bishops who have surfaced and made statements on peace has been truly amazing. I joined Pax Christi (an international peace group) this spring. At that time, it had 16 bishops who were members. Today, I'm told, there are well over 50. That's a dramatic increase.

MCCARTHY: Daniel Berrigan wrote (in America magazine) in June 1979: "We have found to our dismay that the teaching of our church on nuclear war leaves most American Catholics untouched. That teaching is unequivocal and clear. But somewhere between Rome and the Atlantic coast, the voice of Peter is deflected." Why has this happened?

MATTHIESEN: I don't know why, but I think that's an accurate assessment. It didn't touch me. And I was right there at the very door of Pantex. It was not a personal problem for me. And I think that's been the problem with American Catholics up to this point -- it has not been a personal problem. When we had hearings on the MX missile and the dumping of nuclear wastes in the Texas panhandle, then people really sat up and took notice.... That's not a moral stance to take. That's what I'm trying to point out. If it's immoral for us or wrong to put it here, it's also wrong to put it over there. Finally, there's no place on Planet Earth to put this stuff.

HUNTHAUSEN: We're not saying at the moment anything that wasn't said by the Vatican Council or the Holy Fathers along the way. But most of us have felt that somebody else will do something about it.... At one time I thought it was total apathy. But I don't really feel it's that. I just think that people are overwhelmed and they can't quite find a handle.... That's essentially what I've been trying to do: bring people to an awareness that they have a responsibility to come to a position.

MCCARTHY: Have you asked that Catholic schools in your dioceses begin peace studies programs, say in the early grades, and the high schools and colleges?

MATTHIESEN: I have not formally asked them that, but I intend to. Very definitely.

HUNTHAUSEN: We have a program already in motion in the archdiocese. It's been there for several years, in all the high schools.

MCCARTHY: Neither of you went as far as you might have: tax resistance of only half of the payment, and a call for the munitions plant workers to reflect about their jobs, not an order to leave them. Do you see yourselves, say in five years, going further -- announcing, Bishop Hunthausen, that you will not pay at all?

HUNTHAUSEN: I've never thought of that. I've thought only in terms of what portion of the tax goes to the military buildup. So that's a new question to me. I hadn't really thought of that. I see something else on the horizon. Sen. Mark Hatfield in recent years has introduced legislation which will allow tax resistance on the basis of conscientious objection -- the same principle that we use for military service. He's reintroduced that this year. I would like to see a move on the part of the grassroots to influence our legislators to stand behind legislation of that type. That's the kind of awareness that needs to happen in our country.

The tax issue, I've discovered, while it is a strategy to indicate the depths of one's conviction on this matter, can also tend to be divisive. It so touches at the roots of who we are as people that some don't get beyond that loyalty and patriotic issue. So they stop listening. They feel that you have gone too far and you've touched a raw nerve that they can't live with. That's a reality, and you've got to have a listening audience out there. That doesn't mean that (tax resistance) isn't still a viable strategy that one has to, almost in conscience, identify as usable.

MCCARTHY: Bishop Matthiesen, where do you see yourself in five years?

MATTHIESEN: theI find that difficult to predict. I do think that we are on a collision course with some forces in this country, and within our own church. I'm thinking of the economic problems here and in the Third World countries. There's going to be a raising of consciousness about what we are actually doing with our resources.

MCCARTHY: Do you see yourselves bringing your boldness on issues of war and peace into other areas of church policy, such as equality for women and the end of celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood?

HUNTHAUSEN: This past year, I wrote a pastoral (letter) on women which is designed for our own archdiocese. It seemed to attract the attention of the women. At the moment, we're finalizing the establishment of a women's commission which will help us carry out the recommendations in the pastoral about the equality of women in church affairs.

MATTHIESEN: I have moved to bring women into the decision-making process within our church. On celibacy, my own stand is that we need to have a situation in which celibacy is optional, which would make room for a married priesthood. I don't think our people in our area would have any problem with that. That's just on a practical level. Theologically, I don't think there's any problem at all.

MCCARTHY: To get back to peace issues: Alexander Haig is a Catholic, Richard Allen of the National Security Council is a Catholic. From their policies, it doesn't appear as if the church's peace leadership has made its message heard.

MATTHIESEN: Mr. Haig and Mr. Allen represent that element within our church which is strongly allied with the stance that God and country are equal, that waving the flag is tantamount to being a Catholic. That's a very strong strain in our Catholic people. I've got a letter in my files from a serviceman who's really shaken by all of this. he said, "My gosh, you've just shattered my whole life. I've spent 30 years doing this and now you're pulling the rug out." I say, "Hey, wait a minute, we're not questioning the defense of our country or our free way of life. We're challenging the way in which it's being done."

HUNTHAUSEN: A lot of this goes back to the Just War theory. We have to abandon that. Wasn't it Einstein who made the observation that everything has changed with the advent of atomic explosions, everything except our way of thinking? I don't know that we have adjusted to that. The church has got to indicate that the principles that govern the Just War theory are shattered, and that there is no way that we can accommodate ourselves to that, given the weapons of destruction now available to us.

I don't know Haig, but I would guess that he's working out of a stance that he felt was in keeping with his church's teaching, and he has not been able to adjust.

MATTHIESEN: I agree with that.