The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States have prepared a document on nuclear warfare that raises two questions for the press and the public. The first is, "Are they right in what they say?" The document is still in draft stage -- admittedly a second draft but still a draft, still changeable, still very much up for grabs. To make a judgment now on the validity of its conclusions may be prophetic, but it may also be a waste of time. When the bishops finish their paper and publish it in final form, then will be the time for all of us to zero in on the text, to agree, disagree, comment, lambaste or applaud.

The second question can be answered now. "Do or do not the bishops have the right to speak out on nuclear warfare?" This question has drawn out the pundits just as quickly as the putative text, but with considerably more venom. There have been dark mutterings of "heresy" (piquantly used by folk who wouldn't know a live heresy if one bit them), fulminations from various large and little Bethels about the bishops' total lack of qualification as nuclear engineers, general officers, bomber pilots or political scientists (in that order). The whole chorus pleads with the bishops to hie them back to the sacristy, where they can speculate ad infinitum on transubstantiation and other pin- headed if angelic topics. It is for all the world as though a group had gathered to tell the bishops that Jesus really belongs in a closet, and they had best get in it with Him.

All of this rather coolly ignores that the bishops are citizens of these United States and have a right to gather, to speak, to lobby, to seek to persuade. They have the right to do this on matters of national controversy. They even have the right to speak, as do the rest of us, beyond the limits of their professionally defined competencies. Our tradition likes to keep engineers, generals and pilots under civilian control, and at least the bishops qualify as civilians and citizens. It is a sign of respect for them that, when they exercise their right, it exercises so many columnists. I have to confess to not being a lawyer, but it doesn't seem to me that the way I react to a man's use of his free speech limits it.

The bishops are doing more than being citizens. They are exercising their responsibilities first of all as members of the Christian community. It was to all Christians that these words were addressed; "Ye are the light of the world . . . neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house." About this, as about many simple Christian imperatives, there can be very little doubt or confusion. The only logical question that can be raised is not whether bishops can speak now, but why they have not spoken before.

Bishops are not just members of the Roman Catholic community; they are its ordained leaders. Their mission in the church is to govern, to teach and to preach the gospel. All three tasks bind them deeply into civil society, into its politics, economics and the daily rub and detail of its living. For a long time they have spoken out in defense of life, and their reasoning has been remarkably straight-lined. They oppose abortion and capital punishment, and have now turned to nuclear weaponry. This issue is clearly one of significant moral importance, one about which the church can hardly be silent, and one upon which Roman Catholics wish to hear, consider and learn from the bishops' opinions. 1 There is one more dimension. The bishops are not just any group of church leaders. When the entire hierarchy of any large country, like the United States, gathers, it reflects the way the church grows and thinks in its ecumenical gatherings of larger size around the pope. On this particular ground the bishops speak for the church in a real and ancient sense. That is why the results of their speaking are frequently, as they were at the Vatican Council, so much more than the sum of their insights, ideas, attainments or qualifications. The bishops are speaking to their own communicants, and their own communicants understand the long history of the Spirit of God in His dealing with the church. Any group of bishops as large as this one draws around and upon itself that same Spirit.

To those to whom the church is not a mystery, the bishops must rely upon human discourse, their own qualifications, the timing and shrewdness of their speech. To those for whom the church is a mystery, the bishops speak with another voice, an older accent and a far clearer imperative to convince. These 300 men make no claim to be geniuses, experts or even very good writers. They speak to help shape the conscience of the church, to "give light unto all that are in the house." Not only do they have the right to speak -- and loud and clear -- on issues that touch human survival, but they have the obligation to. It is fascinating that even the non-believing world has grown edgily conscious that the voice it hears is more than the voice of men.