In its holy war of polemics against the anti-nuclear war Catholic bishops, the hard right suffered heavy losses. In Chicago, the bishops voted 238-9 for a final pastoral letter that echoed the memorable "No more war" cry of Pope Paul VI in 1965. "The whole world," the bishops said, "must summon the moral courage and technical means to say 'no' to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable."

For a time, it appeared as if the bishops had lost the moral nerve to challenge the Reagan administration's war preparedness policies. In November, they issued a strong second draft of their letter. By April and a third draft, they had become backsliders. They had gone from a "halt" to nuclear weapons to "curb," which was meaningless. They quoted pieties of Caspar Weinberger and William Clark. Last November, Clark delivered a sermon to the bishops that they were guilty of "fundamental misreadings of American policies."

The weak third draft drew hosannas from the right-wing choir. National Review, which had been routinely dismissing the "born again bishops" as appeasers, hailed the third draft on the eve of the Chicago meeting as a "substantial improvement" over the second. Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, who had been scolding "extremist" bishops for their "hubris" and who said the second draft "moves the world very close to war," now found the third draft "admirable." It was "more attuned to conflicting realities than earlier drafts."

In Chicago, the bishops showed they had nerve after all. They rediscovered the word "halt." They relegated Weinberger and Clark to footnotes. They told the Reagan administration to look for someone else to bless the nukes. As peacemakers, the bishops stayed the course.

The right can be expected to recycle its bitter pre-third-draft attacks. The hissing is likely to be sharper, especially since it appeared as though the bishops would heed the right and behave as proper chaplains to the Reagan court.

An example of the bitterness was on display in an editorial in late April in the Richmond News Leader. Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, an articulate peace movement leader whose diocese is heavily populated with military personnel, gave the newspaper heartburn by explaining to his flock that it had the choice of following the Christian nonviolent way to peace or the government's way, but not both.

"Sullivan and his type," muttered the editorial, "are stripping away the moral basis for defense of the United States." Any close reading of what Sullivan and his brother bishops actually are teaching leads to the opposite: there is no moral base for nuclear war. This is tame thinking in itself. What the News Leader derides as "this sort of stuff from Sullivan" sounds radical only because it arrives on the scene just when the Reagan administration is turning up the heat for still greater military excesses.

For the bishops, the hard part of their peacemaking now begins. The media, having reported the stunning conversion of a hierarchy that was pro-war in the '60s under Cardinal Spellman to being anti-nukes in the '80s under Cardinal Bernardin, aren't likely to be fascinated by the slow progress, if any, the bishops make in getting their pastoral letter into the heads of their flock.

Misunderstandings have already occurred in places like Seattle, where the tax-resisting archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen, is falsely depicted by some as a traitor to the flag. The bishops' bind is that they can't force their letter on the faithful as if it were official church teaching nor can they walk away quietly and let the government conclude that the pastoral was all talk.

How, then, to build a genuine peace church? One way is to start in the parochial schools. Beginning in the earliest grades, the lessons of the pastoral should be as crucial a part of the curriculum as reading and math. In colleges, degree programs in peace studies can be offered.

To their credit, the bishops have helped deradicalize the issue. They are an establishment group. They understand political compromising. They realize that peacemaking shouldn't be radical. It should be normal. There's no choice. The origins of their religion are in nonviolence and peaceful resistance. The pastoral letter is the beginning of a return to the original creed.