The Catholic bishops are in town pondering nuclear war, and although there are people who say they should be sticking to traditional church knitting, we say: what took you so long? How could bishops, concerned as they must be with ultimate questions, have failed earlier to deal with the unique "threat to the created order" posed by nuclear weapons? In fact, like the society at large, the bishops were inattentive until political events created a certain impression that things nuclear were getting out of hand. They then threw themselves into a major study on the morality of nuclear war. The document won't be ready for final action until next May, but it has already provoked, inside and outside the church, a fine and vigorous debate.

The first draft, released a month ago, caught special attention for its approach to the doctrine of deterrence. The drafting committee easily pronounced nuclear war beyond the moral pale. If you reject nuclear war, however, what do you do with those nuclear weapons you have deployed to deter the other fellow? How, without such weapons, can you be sure another who has them will be deterred? The committee, aware that it was operating on poorly charted theological terrain, hedged, suggesting that you could keep nuclear weapons for deterrence if you pursued disarmament vigorously. This approach won broad support from the bishops, but they had numerous specific suggestions to make to the drafting committee.

Its chairman, Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, responded with a statement that ought to reassure the many people, including government officials, who have feared that the bishops were undermining American defense -- or anyway were embarrassing the administration. He said essentially that the issue is hard:

"Aware of the differences which exist among both policy analysts and among moralists concerning how these elements are related in a specific policy of deterrence . . . we have not tried to solve all the questions of moral theory concerning deterrence which are presently debated by theologians, philosophers and policy analysts. . . . The committee recognizes the delicacy of the deterrence issue. We are not totally satisfied as yet with the formulation of the theoretical argument we have in the (second) draft, and we are keenly aware of how important it is that the bishops present in this pastoral a moral theory which is in conformity with the totality of the church's moral teaching. . . ."

"Bishops Appear Divided on Proposed A-War Letter," The Post's headline aptly said.

This should not be all that surprising. At the heart of deterrence, there is a moral question, perplexing and perhaps insoluble, arising inexorably from the terrible power of nuclear arms. The bishops are not the first to struggle with it, but it is good to have them join the effort. By joining it, they open themselves, as they are quite aware, to the political rough and tumble. But their deepening immersion, we think, in no significant way imperils the evolution of a sound public policy; on the contrary, it helps.