In the 1970s, as hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics were deciding to spend Sunday morning snoring rather than praying, University of California sociologist Robert Bellah observed, "The Catholic church finally decided to recognize the values of the modern world just when American young people were beginning to find it valueless."

At the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the assembled potentates grasped at nuclear freeze politique; they embraced the foreign policy nostrums of the progressive intelligentsia, godless though its members may be; they incorporated all this into the draft of a pastoral letter to be completed this spring. Thus the revision of the Catholic liturgy moves from the stately Latin of times past to the bibble-babble of the moment.

The progressive foreign policy that the bishops have decided to recognize was found to be valueless in the late 1970s. Essentially it is a foreign policy that cashiers military strength and the willingness to use it for persuasion, moral example and high-minded negotiations.

The Catholic bishops and their new allies in the nuclear freeze movement may think that high-mindedness is a revolutionary approach to foreign policy, but close students of the Carter administration know better. High- mindedness was the heart of the Carter foreign policy.

Persuasion, moral example and an absolute lust to negotiate were useless in ending Hanoi's brutality toward the boat people, ridding Afghanistan of Soviet troops or banning the use of chemical and biological warfare by the Soviets and their henchmen. When Carter duly implemented his progressive foreign policy against the ayatollah, the old crank humiliated him for 444 days.

The uselessness of progressive foreign policy is as manifest today as the uselessness of appeasement was two years after Hitler's panzers rolled into Poland.

That the advocates of the freeze movement should be thumping so furiously for moral exhibitionism as opposed to vigilance and strength is but more evidence of mankind's longing for the irrational.

In modern America the power of the Catholic hierarchy is draining off to the shrinks, the schoolmarms and the disciples of Mammon. The religious leaders are at a dreadful intellectual disadvantage in our cynical secular world.

Most of the religious virtues are viewed as curious at best and as fit subjects for clinical inquiry at many universities. With the rise of the nuclear freeze, doubtless many of the good bishops thought that they could gain both intellectual respectability and political power in one sally. They are probably in error.

The Catholic Church in America has been an immigrant church whose members looked to the bishops for religious and worldly counsel. The immigrants are now mostly dead. Their heirs are no longer so easily led.

Right now the Catholic laity is taking sides on foreign policy, and neither side will feel very congenial with bishops who opposed them on a question that they rightly view as mainly political.