In his article, "The Church We Love Is Being Used" (op-ed, March 8), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warned that the Catholic Church is "dangerously close to aiding single-issue groups in cutting down so much of what it has stood for in the past." In his view, the groups with whom an alliance is the most dangerous for the church are those that, like it, "seek legal strictures on abortion." This is because the "pro-life movement" "has become a stalking horse for the right," and the right, he asserts, is "virtually the antithesis" of what the church stand for.

And what might that be, at least according to the senator? He answers at two levels. First, he tells us that Christian teaching includes "compassion for the weak, support for the poor, aid for the hungry and love for all mankind." Then, at another level -- the political -- he would have it that this Christian teaching necessarily has led the church to assume a leading role in "efforts to improve health care, strengthen civil rights, provide fair and decent housing, ensure safe working conditions and adequate wages."

Now it needs to be acknowledged that the senator is absolutely correct to the extent that it certainly is not Christian teaching to abuse the weak, take from the poor, starve the hungry and hate everyone. In fact, it is not the teaching of any religion -- which gives rise to a point worth remarking.

Catholics who try also to be liberals are regularly given to emphasizing certain authentic Christian virtues, but ignoring others -- the ones unique to Christianity. This is understandable. The inherent contradiction between their Christianity and their liberalism dictates that they should avoid the harder truths unique to the faith, even while they must cling most closely to all that it has in common with other religions. Their aim is to make the religion palatable to liberals; that is, persons who believe so fervently that all beliefs are equal that they end by believing in nothing but themselves.

Compassion? It is the most facile of emotions. Liberals love it. The senator speaks of it at least three times, but Holy Scripture, curiously, does not record Our Lord doing so once. Peace? That is something else that the right wing, according to the left (or at least Leahy), is against. Our Lord does talk about it. "Do not think that I have come to send peace upon the earth," He said; "I have come to bring a sword, not peace." That is in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

In St. Luke we read: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will .'" (Msgr. Ronald Know, in his renowned translation of the New Testament, renders the phrase as peace to men "that are God's friends.") The idea that peace is the lot only of men of good will, or friends of God, is a Christian as it is contradictory of basic liberal assumptions, except when the liberal assumes that all men or, as he would have it, all persons are persons of good will. It is basic to those Christians becoming politically active as Christians whom the senator would dismiss as simply rightists. It is because they know, to cite Holy Scripture a last time, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it."

On the political level, it would be unfair to do, as does the senator: characterize as a stalking horse of the left any one of the movements in which the church, according to him, has played a leading role, whether it be for health care, civil rights, decent housing or just. It would even be unfair to stigmatize the groups seeking those ends as "single-issue groups," though they be exactly that. It is important to understand that few Catholics, if any, are more likely to be opposed to those things that to be hateful to the weak, poor and starving. Probably no Jew or Zoroastrian would be either. Only, how to obtain those things, and to what degree, how fast, and at what cost are they to be obtained? t

We know how statists like Msgr. George Higgins and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, as well as Leahy, would go about it. Both the clerics were trotted out by the senator to lend his article additional credibility, one supposes, with those still easily impressed by the collar, any collar. Those would be largely non-Catholics. They should know this ploy does not work very well anyone with Catholic laymen. Since Vatican II, we have been learning to think for ourselves. We have had to.

We know the bishops' "respect-life agenda" that Higgins talks about is simply the historical liberal agenda illegitimately wed to "pro-life." As for Hesburgh, we know him for at least two things besides his being president of Notre Dame University, as the senator reports him: 1) his name can always be found on any full-page ad for a liberal cause appearing in Sunday's paper; 2) he is also chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of whose main activities for decades has been the promotion of abortion and life-prevention programs. Of course, he is unhappy when candidates he supports are defeated by "pro-life," "single-issue" groups!

What he and Higgins and Leahy and the bishops, too, cannot afford to concede is that there are Catholics who do not adhere to the historical liberal agenda but are still deeply committed to social justice -- as committed as they are to the faith itself. The liberals cannot see, they will not admit, that it is possible to be committed but to disagree prudentially with them as to what constitutes social justice in all its parts and how to obtain it. They will not allow, as others of us contend, that bankrupting America's working people -- and, thus, the nation -- will not advance the cause of social justice.

Those of us Catholics who so contend will go even further; abandoning the "pro-life" movement and joining them in their espousal of tested and provenfaulty, exhausted, outmoded liberalism will not provide what is needed -- a truly peace-full society, which will be one made up of friends of God, who may or may not also he friends of national health insurance, open housing, SALT III or the closed shop, but who can never be killers of the unborn made in His image.