Judy Mann's unreflective praise of the Worldwatch Institute "study" of abortion {Metro, July 18} raises several questions, especially when she accepts its misrepresentations about the Catholic Church.

The first question is one of simple journalistic competence. Using a network of abortion advocates as one's source for Catholic theological history is like learning black history from the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact Christianity universally condemned both abortion and infanticide from the first century A.D., beginning with the earliest catechisms, theologians and church councils. Indeed, this was a mark of pride among Christians and a conviction that distinguished them from most of the surrounding pagan society.

Through the centuries, theologians have speculated on various circumstances that might justify an abortion; the church studied each argument and rejected each. The only change has been in canon law, which at one time provided less severe ecclesiastical penalties for an early abortion because of certain theories about ensoulment. When Aristotle's biological ideas were discredited in the 19th century, this canonical distinction also became obsolete and was dropped; a parallel development occurred in American civil law. Throughout its history the church opposed abortion at any stage as a grave moral wrong.

The Worldwatch Institute's carelessness in historical research invites questions about the accuracy of its claims on abortion policy. Even researchers who favor legalized abortion, including Christopher Tietze and others affiliated with Planned Parenthood, have found that maternal mortality rates from abortion depend more on "the general level of health services" and other factors than on the legal status of abortion -- another fact of which Judy Mann seems unaware.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER Associate Director for Policy Development National Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities Washington