Catholic leaders for the first time yesterday endorsed specific legislation for a constitutional amendment that would take the abortion issue away from the courts and give Congress and the states the right to make laws in that area.

Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York, chairman of "pro-life" activities for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a Senate subcommittee that since the 1973 Supreme Court decision allowing abortion there has been "an abortion mentality" in America that reflects "a situation of lawlessness in our country."

Speaking in favor of the constitutional amendment offered by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Cooke said: "The time has come for our elected representatives, in the face of the arbitrary and destructive action by the courts, to resume and exercise their role to protect the common good of all."

Many hard-line anti-abortionists prefer pending legislation that would ban abortions. But Archbishop John Roach of Minneapolis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a political decision had been made to go along with the Hatch amendment because it is thought more likely to pass.

Calling the abortion situation since 1973 a "national scandal," Roach said: "I am convinced a society is doomed to violence when it allows direct attacks on the most fundamental of all human rights--the right to life itself."

Cooke and Roach were among a group of religious leaders testifying before the Senate Judiciary's Constitution subcommittee on Hatch's so-called "human life federalism" amendment and other pending anti-abortion measures.

Roach said the church decided to break with policy and endorse Hatch's amendment because of the "cumulative horror" of an increasing number of abortions in the United States, which Cooke estimated at 1.5 million annually.

Under Hatch's amendment, Congress and the state legislatures would share jurisdiction over abortion. A federal law enacted by Congress would take precedence over state law, unless the state law were more restrictive.

Hatch made it clear yesterday that he believes the Supreme Court has overstepped its jurisdiction on the issue.

He said it is better to leave the decision to elected representatives in the states rather than unelected Supreme Court judges "who impose their personal standards on 230 million Americans . . . . I don't think the court's been put together to deal with moral and social issues. It's been put together to deal with constitutional issues."

Hatch has said his amendment probably will not be voted on before next year. But another major abortion foe, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), is pushing for a Senate vote on his anti-abortion legislation before Congress quits for the year.

Helms and John P. East (R-N.C.) support an amendment banning abortions and a bill now on the Senate calendar that would define human life as beginning at conception.

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, urged that the various amendments restricting abortion be turned down.

"These amendments take sides, or would allow the government to take sides, not between a moral and an amoral approach, but between two conflicting moral approaches that are equally grounded in profound religious conviction," he said.

"The proper role of government in a free society is to allow different religious traditions to inculcate their own beliefs with respect to abortion, and to leave that final decision to the woman, answering to God and conscience."

In a press conference following the hearing, a group called Catholics for a Free Choice challenged the authority of Cooke and Roach to speak for Catholics, saying "no one is pro-abortion, but three-quarters of the Catholic population is pro-choice." graphics1: Cooke: "An abortion mentality" in America reflects "a situation of lawlessness."