Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, considered the most influential leader of the nation's 52 million Catholics, said last night that there is no place for "single-issue politics" in the church's support for a "consistent moral vision" that includes all aspects of life.

Speaking at Georgetown University here, Bernardin delivered a strong rebuttal of the stand taken by some Catholic bishops who have urged voters to make political choices based on a candidate's position on abortion or nuclear arms.

"War and abortion are linked at the level of moral principles," the Chicago cardinal said as part of what was seen as a major statement on politics and religion.

"The value of the framework of a consistent ethic is that it forces us to face the full range of threats to life . . . . The Catholic position on abortion requires -- by the law of logic and the law of love -- a social vision which joins the right to life to the promotion of a range of other rights: nutrition, health care, employment and housing."

Bernardin's speech comes in the midst of one of the fiercest debates in recent history on the relationship between religion and politics, a debate that has polarized American Catholics. Both Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo have been criticized by Archbishop John O'Connor of New York for not actively campaigning against abortion, and others in the church hierarchy have urged Catholics to make abortion the primary issue in the November election.

Bernardin's role in spearheading the development of the American bishops' controversial pastoral letter condemning nuclear warfare and his leadership of the powerful Pro-Life Activities Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops give him a position of influence among Catholics in America.

And his remarks, seemingly lending support to Ferraro's private opposition to abortion and her public votes against antiabortion measures, are especially significant contributions to the controversy that her candidacy for the vice president has created within the church.

Declaring that "the civil law must be rooted in the moral law, but it may not at times incorporate the full range of the moral law," Bernardin said that the " . . . question is not whether the deepest personal convictions of politicians should influence their public choices, but how the two should be related."

Bernardin said that while "we want people in public office whose deepest beliefs shape their character and determine the quality of their leadership . . . the development of public policy requires a wider consensus than the personal conviction of any individual -- even a public figure."

Without mentioning any of his fellow bishops by name, the Chicago prelate reiterated the "seamless garment" approach to issues that he first expounded last December.

"The policy of abortion on demand needs to be resisted and reversed, Bernardin said. But this does not mean the nuclear question can be ignored or relegated to a subordinate status."

Americans "face the reality of living in one of the two nations in the world which can initiate the nuclear cataclysm and perhaps the nuclear winter. I am convinced that the bishops and the church as a whole must be equally engaged in both issues," he said.

On choosing candidates, Bernardin's criteria would appear to raise questions about both presidential contenders. "I would not want a candidate for public office today to be complacent, passive or satisfied with the level or the dynamic of the arms race or the defense budget or our nation. I would look for the person who says, 'What we have is unacceptable and I will work for change.' "

But he added: "In the same vein, I would want candidates who are willing to say, 'The fact of 1.5 million abortions a year is unacceptable, and I will work for a change in the public policy which encourages or permits this practice.' "

While condemning single-issue politics, the cardinal defended the right of religious groups to join in political debate. "The First Amendment guaranteed religious institutions the right to be heard in the public debate," he said.

At the same time, Bernardin distanced the Catholic Church from what he called "the religious right," because the latter "at times fails to address the complexity of our policy agenda and the legitimate secular qualtity of our public discourse."

During a question-and-answer session after his address, Bernardin responded to a query about pregnancy resulting from rape, saying: "As a teacher of morality I cannot justify abortion in the case of rape. But as a pastor, I would have to deal with the enormous human tragedy that is involved in such a case," including providing medical, pyschological and other resources.

"As a pastor, I could understand why someone would be driven to such a thing abortion ," Bernardin added.

One member of the audience, Ann Neale, a theologian who once served on the staff of the Bishops Conference, complained that church documents fail to mention "the affront to the dignity and the well-being of women. . . . It seems to me that the bishops' concern does not encompass the threats to the human dignity and life that women experience." Her remarks drew sustained applause.

Bernardin said he "would like to give another talk on those points," but said he was limited last night to the subject of religion and politics.