As a Roman Catholic and 1960 graduate of the University of Notre Dame University, Bruce Babbitt remains steadfast in the faith of his childhood. Signs appear that the secretary of interior is also growing in his religious convictions, a growth that increasingly brings together his public policy bents and private theological beliefs.

The joining involves the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that ensures protection for animals, plants and habitats threatened with extinction by the acts of human predators who, out of recklessness or unawareness, put economic wealth over biological wealth.

Congressional paws and more than a few fangs have been part of the political mauling of the law in the past year as it came up for renewal. For critics, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) means federal overregulation, assaults on property rights and anti-progress sentimentalism.

More than 950 species are listed. The Interior Department would like to include 239 more, but Congress, in an amendment to a money bill last year, said no.

ESA has saved from extinction 99 percent of the species of animals and plants listed, at an annual cost to each American of 16 cents in federal expenditures. For three years Babbitt has used those arguments of high efficiency and low cost to defend what he calls "the most aggressively singled out for elimination" of any current environmental law.

Now Babbitt has another argument, the religious one. For those who know the secretary either as a man of natural reflectiveness or as a former governor of Arizona who would have been a progressive president had he won more votes in the 1988 primaries, his recent speeches around the country about religion are not surprising.

Like Mary McCarthy in "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood," Babbitt grew up "learning my religious values through the Catholic Church." It was the 1940s and '50s. In that time and "in that Judeo-Christian tradition {the church} kept silent on our moral obligations to nature. By its silence the church implicitly sanctioned the prevailing view of the earth as something to be used and disposed however we saw fit, without any higher obligation. In all the years I attended Sunday Mass, hearing hundreds of homilies and sermons, there was never any reference, any link, to our natural heritage or to the spiritual meaning of the land surrounding us.

"Yet, outside that church I always had a nagging instinct that the vast landscape was somehow sacred, and holy, and connected to me in a sense that my catechism ignored."

Left on his own, or partly so if you believe that God's grace saves lost minds as well as lost souls, Babbitt had a conversion to a deeper, richer Catholicism. His spiritual guide was a Hopi from a Northern Arizona tribe. One summer, he taught the future governor some of the tribe's religious beliefs and rites.

"By the end of that summer," Babbitt recalls, "I came to believe, deeply and irrevocably, that the land . . . and all the plants and animals in the natural world are together a direct reflection of divinity, that creation is a plan of God."

Babbitt the converted is not alone. In late January, he invited to his office 10 religious leaders who have been similarly awakened. They came to tell the secretary, and the country, about their group, the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is centered in Wynnewood, Pa.

Some were theologians, others pastors. All were committed to strengthening, not weakening, the Endangered Species Act. All have political differences on other issues, but on this one solidarity prevails.

They are one with the views of the network's co-founder, Calvin DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: "People in their arrogance are destroying God's creation, yet Congress and special interests are trying to sink the Noah's Ark of our day -- the Endangered Species Act. Few legislative issues ought to be as clear as this one. Christian faith teaches respect for the works of God, and the Endangered Species Act offers real and fair protection for all His creation, including us."

Babbitt is devoutly grateful for the evangelicals' support. Their power base extends to 30,000 churches -- potential "Noah Congregations" -- whose pastors have welcomed the network's literature and materials. Keepers of the word are getting the word.

For a time last year when ESA was under Republican-agenda assault, its allies appeared not to have a prayer. Now they do -- plus a strategy, an organization and a born-again Catholic at the Interior Department holding the faith and sharing the hope.