I am not the kind of Catholic who begrudges his bishops the right to speak out with all the help that heaven and Hill & Knowlton can provide. But I do wish that Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, would allow himself the occasional luxury of an unexpressed thought. The cardinal, a practitioner of provocative obfuscation, made his most recent foray into the news last week, threatening to excommunicate Catholic politicians who supported a woman's right to an abortion.

This is dangerous talk. It's also silly. The cardinal has the power to excommunicate only in his own diocese. The darkness into which he casts New York Gov. Mario Cuomo may be eternal darkness, but it is geographically specific, making mockery of the idea of the universal church but raising entertaining theological questions about whether the governor's salvation would depend on his dying in Albany rather than in Manhattan.

Even ardent foes of legalized abortion should find little comfort in the cardinal's pronouncement because beyond the visceral thrill of having someone on your team kick up a little rhetorical dust lies substantial potential for backlash. The antiabortion movement's greatest success has been broadening its base, reaching beyond its religious core constituencies to a larger audience. By singling out Catholic politicians, O'Connor has once again identified abortion as a strictly Catholic issue. He has also resurrected a specter that antiabortion leaders have worked hard to bury, that of religious leaders imposing themselves between the people and their elected representatives.

Taken to its logical extreme, O'Connor's assertion that Catholic politicians carry out church teaching would make it difficult for any Catholic candidate to get elected and impossible for him to govern. No one doubts the antiabortion credentials of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), author of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would outlaw most abortions. Yet Hyde spurned an ardent right-to-life candidate in his state's gubernatorial primary to back pro-choice Republican Jim Edgar. He is also backing Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) in her bid to a unseat Paul Simon in the Senate, despite Martin's highly visible role in helping to open her party to abortion-rights advocates. If Cuomo has jeopardized his immortal soul, as one clairvoyant bishop has opined, then what of Hyde? And if Hyde is not sufficiently deferential to the Catholic hierarchy on this issue, then who is?

The threat, or warning, as the cardinal would now have it, is all the more peculiar because it is not at all clear on what grounds a politician can be excommunicated for public utterance and action. "Mario Cuomo is absolutely right when he asks, 'What church doctrine, specifically, have I violated?'" says the Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of theology at Notre Dame University. "There is no church doctrine that sets what kind of laws we have to have in a political society and how those laws are to be administered and executed."

Thomas Aquinas, the preeminent Catholic theologian, recognized a distinction between moral and civil law. He knew that human failing prevented the latter from replicating the former. He knew, too, that the virtuous might impose more on the weak than the weak could bear. This would lead, he wrote, to unenforceable laws, disrespect for civic authority and potential political upheaval. Catholic politicians, whether they've read "Summa Theologica" or not, are aware that the type of law O'Connor is urging on them could prove explosively unpopular and that they, not he, would be responsible for the strife that might ensue.

It is encouraging, at least, that O'Connor issued his warning alone, without support from his fellow bishops. It reveals a deep divide in the American episcopacy over how best to pursue the antiabortion agenda. While O'Connor and bishops such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston favor a hard line in dealing with dissenters, more enlightened clerics such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee recognize that instruction is a more useful tool than intimidation when dealing with an increasingly independent and sophisticated laity.

These clerics understand that while the essence of Catholic teaching on abortion can be summarized on a bumper sticker -- "Abortion Is Murder" -- distilling that essence is emotionally wrenching and intellectually demanding. They know that many sensitive and well-educated Catholics disagree with church teaching because they feel it contradicts the very values (compassion, comforting the needy) that their church instills. Like Cardinal O'Connor, they would argue that these people have erred, that they are lost. Unlike Cardinal O'Connor, they do not believe that "Stop or else" constitutes directions home.

The writer is a reporter in The Post's Style section.