ON MAY 13, the U.S. secretary of defense, undersecretary of state for political affairs and director of arms of control and disarmament met with a committee of American Catholic bishops. The meeting was one of many held by the committee, which is preparing a major statement on nuclear war to be considered by all U.S. bishops next November.

The bishops have been at the forefront of the new antinuclear movement, and the willingness of high-level administration officials to meet with them privately is ample testimony to their influence. They are important not only because of the influence they may have on American Catholics, who make up 28 percent of the population and 30 percent of the armed forces, however. Jerome Frank, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says the bishops' involvement has given credibility to the entire movement.

A major development occured last week when Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, who has backed a bilateral nuclear freeze, announced a series of meetings designed to foster discussion of the moral dimensions of nuclear war. Hickey's action, more detailed than that of other bishops, is tailored to the Washington area, which would be among the first targets of any Soviet nuclear strike.

It also reflects the fact that Washington's pews are filled with Catholics in positions of expertise and influence in government, the military and peace groups. Area Catholics include Edward Rowny, President Reagan's hawkish arms negotiator, and Gerard Smith, who negotiated SALT I and now supports a freeze and a U.S. "no-first-strike" pledge.

Mainline bishops like Hickey have a great deal to bring to the present debate, but there is a danger their contributions may be obscured by distractions and distortions coming from both left and right and from both inside and outside the church.

One source of distraction, for example, is the Catholic left, where symbols too often triumph over substance. The bishops are having a major impact precisely because they aren't Berrigans, pouring blood on the Pentagon.

But much of the current discussion has focused on the decision of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who backs unilateral disarmament, to withhold half of his federal income tax to protest U.S. nuclear policy. While Hunthausen may have given others the courage to speak out in a less controversial way, his tax withholding is just the kind of symbolic gesture which will divert attention away from the central issue -- the increasing risk of nuclear war -- to peripheral issues like the propriety of his tactic or speculation about whether he will go to jail.

Another symbolic battle was waged over the Navy's decision to name a nuclear submarine the Corpus Christi. The sub was named for the city, but the city was named for "the body of Christ," and Christian leaders were understandably perturbed by the choice. Instead of seeking a compromise, Navy Secretary John Lehman chose to defend the name on principle, arguing that changing it would imply that "naval ships and even military service are somehow profane."

Lehman finally relented and changed the name to the City of Corpus Christi in the face of a prolonged hunger strike by Mitch Snyder, a Catholic activist who goes on hunger strikes the way other people write letters to the editor. But there was no victory for peace in the change. Lehman simple gave in to an act of force, which is the way theologians view hunger strikes, and U.S. nuclear policy was no more bellicose before he changed the name and no less so afterward.

Lehman created another distraction by making a personal attack on Hunthausen, charging that "There is something deeply immoral in the use -- or misuse -- of sacred religious office to promulgate extremist political views." Lehman offered a classic example of the argument that Americans shouldn't abuse their freedoms by exercising them.

Beyond distractions like these, both pacifists and hawks have distorted the bishops' basic positions on nuclear war. The bishops' position is best summed up in the often- quoted testimony Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia presented to Congress in 1979 while supporting the SALT II treaty:

"The moral paradox of deterrence is that its purpose is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, but it does so by an expressed threat to attack the civilian population of one's adversary. Such a threat runs directly counter to the central moral affirmation of the Christian teaching on war; that innocent lives are not open to direct attack.

"The moral judgment on this statement is that not only the use of strategic nuclear weapons but also the declared intent to use them involved in our deterrence policy is wrong. This explains the Catholic dissatisfaction with nuclear deterrence and the urgency of the Catholic demand that the nuclear arms race be reversed.

"As long as there is hope of this occuring, Catholic moral teaching is willing, while negotiations proceed, to tolerate the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence as the lesser of two evils. If that hope were to disappear, the moral attitude of the Catholic Church would almost certainly have to shift to one of uncompromising condemnation of both use and possession of such weapons."

The position Krol described was tenable while the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations were negotiating SALT II treaties. But the Reagan administration, by declaring SALT II dead, using Cold War rhetoric, launching a massive arms buildup and talking repeatedly of "limited" and "winnable" nuclear war, has convinced many bishops that the hope of which Krol spoke -- of reversing the arms race through good faith negotiations -- is, for now at least, dead. The question they will wrestle with in November is what to do next.

Some people, including a handful of bishops like Hunthausen, have concluded that the only acceptable moral alternative is unilateral nuclear disarmament. Jesuit Francis Winters, a political scientist at Georgetown University, stops just short of that, although he argues that Krol's position implies "unilateral obligation to forego nuclear threats and attacks" and "rejects the essential capstone of all U.S. deterrence policy." Winters also argues that the bishops' policy forces Catholics in government and the armed forces to choose between their consciences and careers. In addition, he says, "Security may dictate surrender."

This interpretation of the bishops' position is shared by critics like George Will and Catholic theologian Michael Novak, who charge that the bishops have abandoned the just war theory and the church's support for legitimate self-defense, that they are undermining deterrence and that the logic of their position ultimately leads to unilateral disarmament.

Writing in Newsweek, Will preached back to the bishops their distinction between that which is morally "approved" and that which is morally "tolerable." He argued that "it is reckless to decree that any use, even any possession for deterrence purposes, is necessarily a larger evil than the long night of centuries that would follow the extinguishing of Western cultural values by armed totalitarianism."

Novak worried in Commentary that the bishops "can claim . . . to speak for the church and to bar dissenters under pain of sin from the sacraments. This is a dangerous power," he said, "invoking sacred authority for a position to which others have strong and reasoned objections."

Other critics, like Bishop John O'Connor, military vicar for Catholics in the armed forces, argue that the church has never explicitly condemned the use of "tactical" nuclear weapons directed at military targets. ("Tactical" weapons today are the size of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Will, Novak, O'Connor and others are a little too sanguine about moral distinctions; they createat Ameri the impression that if a sufficiently satanic portrait of the Soviet Union is painted, a "just" nuclear war can be acclaimed.

But the bishops' current concern stems directly from the just-war theory, which presupposes that to be morally justified, a war must achieve a greater good than the evil it brings. Prelates like Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco argue that the destruction wrought by nuclear war would be so great -- possibly including destruction of the planet -- that there is no proportional good to be found. It is far from clear how much of the "Western cultural values" so cherished by Will, for example, would survive a nuclear war.

The majority of bishops opposing the present nuclear arms race also cite church documents which make it clear that the use of nuclear weapons does not constitute legitimate self-defense. The Second Vatican Council, in "The Church in the Modern World," said: "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."

Earlier than that, in 1954, Pope Pius XII -- hardly thought of as soft on communism -- told the World Medical Association: "Atomic, biological and chemical warfare involves such an extension of evil that it entirely escapes from the control of man and its use must be rejected as immoral. Here, there would no longer be a question of 'defense' . . . but the pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of action. This is not permitted for any reason whatsoever."

As for "limited" nuclear war, any possible moral loophole allowing the use of "tactical" nuclear weapons will in all probability be closed by the U.S. bishops in November; the lack of certainty with which anyone could say that a "limited" nuclear war would stay limited is more than enough to make any suggestion of the possibility morally irresponsible.

Critics of the bishops argue that they threaten U.S. deterrence policy. But, in perhaps the best statement by a bishop in recent months, Bishop Roger Mahony of Stockton, Calif., said, "The very use of the term 'deterrence' in moral argument has become very dangerous because of its ambiguities.

"We now need to distinguish," he said, "between legitimate deterrence strategies and the rhetoric of a spurious 'deterrence' within which hawks on both sides of the East/West divide compete to increase arms and provocations, envision fictitious gaps and windows of vulnerability, enter unending, inconclusive negotiations which do not really stop the arms race and accelerate our drift toward nuclear annihilation."

"The deterrence envisioned by the tenuous Catholic moral toleration of the possession of nuclear weapons as a permissible evil is aimed at deterring the use of other nuclear weapons against us," he said. "It is not morally permissible to use nuclear weapons to deter mere conventional warfare . . . Clearly, we have moved beyond deterrence to the production and use of nuclear weapons as an assertion of our national superiority. We are being urged to use our nuclear arsenal as 'bargaining chips' for diplomatic and political adventures far beyond questions of deterrence."

"It is my conviction," Mahony said, "that Catholics no longer have a secure moral basis to support actively or cooperate passively in the current U.S. arms policy and escalating arms race."

But Novak needn't worry: Mahony, who made several references to Catholics' "freedom of conscience," isn't going to demand that the Catholic secretary of state step down. He noted that "The Soviet Union does represent a real threat to our national interests and security," and added, "I am not, therefore, advocating unilateral disarmament or an unqualified pacifism."

About half of the 280 active Catholic bishops, including Mahony, have endorsed a bilateral freeze on the production, deployment and testing of nuclear weapons; the bishops may well iendorse the proposal as a body in November. But the bishops still support SALT II; the freeze campaign is in part an effort to push the United States and Soviet Union to the bargaining table. Recent initiatives by Presidents Reagan and Brezhnev suggest the campaign may have already been a partial success.

Whatever the bishops say in November isn't going to please either pacifists in the Catholic left or the "realists" like Novak and Will. But both sides are looking for simple answers: One is looking to withdraw from power and one is looking to monopolize it.

Will concluded in Newsweek that "when the subject is nuclear weapons, everyone, and especially persons propounding radical and dubious new religious duties inimical to deterrence, should remember the duty to be clear in their own minds about where their logic leads, and to be candid with others about the probable real-world consequences of the behavior they favor."

He is correct that the "probable real- world" consequences of unilateral nuclear disarmament include surrender; he is wrong that the logical consequences of the bishops' position is unilateral nuclear disarmament.

And he is unaware or not acknowledging that the probable real-world consequence of the administration policy he so favors could very well include all-out nuclear war.