Only on rare occasions does a large organization such as the Roman Catholic Church permit the public into its very mind and heart. Such an event occurred last week when the Vatican responded to the Salman Rushdie/"Satanic Verses" episode. In an unsigned statement in its own newspaper, the Vatican condemned Mr. Rushdie's book, without even mentioning Iran's formal, government-approved call for his murder {news story, March 5}. No doubt the Vatican will excuse this minor "act of omission" by arguing that it said nothing about the murder order and therefore did not imply approval. This response is not convincing. Quite simply, the Vatican cannot pretend that its silence does not amount to a wink and a nod to violence and bigotry done in the name of God. This is particularly true when one recalls that Iran's emissary to the Vatican has publicly supported the order to murder Mr. Rushdie. In fact, the Vatican has consistently recognized the symbolic nature of its acts. I recall that some years ago the Vatican rejected an American emissary who was divorced. According to the Vatican, the rejection was necessary precisely because accepting the emissary might have suggested some change in the church's position on the indissolubility of marriage. At a local level, the church's sensitivity to moral symbol was allegedly so strong that it drove officials at Georgetown University to spend years and a great deal of money refusing to acknowledge the existence of gay campus groups, less acknowledgment be equated with church approval. No religious institution has taken a more strict "pro-life" stance than the Catholic Church. Life is always sacred, it says, and abortion is always wrong -- no exceptions and no equivocations. Regarding Mr. Rushdie's life, however, a different standard has been adopted. If the church is serious about being heard in today's world, it must explain why murder-for-hire is somehow less repugnant than abortion or divorce. STEPHEN K. OTT Washington