American Catholic bishops are currently under siege by reformers who want to have the words of the mass trimmed to say that Christ died, not "for all men," but "for all." The word "men," it seems, is thought to be "sexist" by the reformers, and prima facie proof of improper thinking. So the bishops are in a fix: changing the words of the liturgy would amount to admitting that what their critics charge is true -- that they have "hated women all along." Not changing them, on the other hand, would mean that they are unrepentantly sexist. And so, you should pardon the expression, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Now I know what it's like to have people after you like that, because, as it happens, I am currently being sought by several squads of Thought Police -- a situation that seems absurd when you consider how I was brought up.

My parents, you see, taught me how to talk when I was a baby and, shortly after that, gave me rudimentary grammar lessons and a vigorously firm indication of what new words were henceforth to be considered obscene. And so, by the age of 12, I was pretty much on my own as far as talking went and -- foolishly, as it now appears -- expected to remain so. Not until I grew up, got married, fathered children and took what I thought was an adult's role in the world did I find that, presto! my speech was being corrected once more -- and this time not by parents, but by friends, casual acquaintances and even passers-by. Increasingly, I found myself being interrupted at social gatherings, on the Metro and even at the pool hall I had always regarded as the last refuge of the civilized world, by official-looking people who would barge right into the middle of my sentences and tell me how to talk.

It was all very confusing. I was not to use the word "Negro," even when referring to a man who calls himself that, and was instructed to say instead "black" -- a word that could have earned you a black eye back where I come from. Moreover, I was not even to think, let alone say, the word "homosexual," but was to use the word "gay" -- even if the person being referred to was morose in the extreme. I was to purge the words "Miss" and "Mrs." from my vocabulary in favor of "Ms.," and no longer was I to call "poor" anybody who ought to be called "socially disadvantaged." And I was to remember, and never forget, that a man who'd gone to Johns Hopkins to get his private parts cut off was to be called "she."

There are dozens of words like that, many of which did not make sense; and when I was slow in using the words I'd been told to, I was, understandably, branded as an ist for all time -- fascist, chauvinist, racist, sexist and other ists that I have forgotten. And yet, turkey that I am, I could could not help admiring the brilliance of those who'd hauled me to the block on such scant evidence, and even went so far as to ask one of the Thought Police how this was done.

"Listen," she said, "after you use a world like that, it doesn't matter what you claim to belive. Because we know what you really believe."

I thought this clairvoyance was dazzling; that on the basis of only one word, she'd not only been able to tell that I was a sexist, a chauvinist and even a bit of a Nazi, but was able to describe my exact position on the Equal Rights Amendment, the firing of Bella Abzug and any number of social and legislative issues that I'd not even heard of. So it is no wonder I got intimidated and dropped out of sight, for I had been raised in that ridiculous, distant time when it was thought rude to interrupt grown men and tell them what words to use, and impossible to determine what anybody was thinking without first hearing him out.

My mistake, it now seems, was a literary one, because I had mistakenly thought that George Orwell's "1984," wherein he pictured the city of the future, was fiction instead of a practical blueprint for Washington, D.C. Had I known that, I could have been ready; for Orwell's city, too, had its official language, "Newspeak," which manufactured new words to express the official philosophy and banished other words so as to make unofficial thoughts unthinkable. In Orwell's city, too, it was necessary to supplement the efforts of the Thought Police with the outpouring of the "prolefeed" -- that "rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party passed out to the masses" -- wherein Newspeak was the only language allowed.

Since Orwell's city is really ours, then, it's not much wonder that bishops live in big houses, the better to hide while reeducating themselves at the prolefeed. And one surmises that they must look back to the world of St. Thomas Aquinas -- who said, "Beware of the man of one book" -- as the good old days. Because now they have got to beware of the, ah, persons of one word, who, it seems, do not need to read books, but can pick up whatever they need to know out of thin air.