The Catholic bishops of the United States are firmly, irrevocably and unequivocally in favor of civil rights. They are also firmly, irrevocably and unequivocally opposed to the notion that abortion can properly be viewed as a "civil right."

Keep both propositions clearly in mind, for both are necessary to understand what follows.

Now under way in Congress and likely to continue for months to come is a lively debate over important new civil rights legislation. The bill (H.R. 700) will soon come to the House floor. As far as the authentic "civil rights" aspects of the question are concerned, the bishops are strongly supportive.

But the bishops also want changes in the legislation, significant ones. That doesn't arise from a desire to weaken or subvert civil rights, but from a concern to ensure that the national commitment to civil rights isn't diverted into unacceptable channels, notably including abortion.

The timeliness of the current push for new civil rights legislation is apparent. More than a year ago the Supreme Court handed down a ruling of great importance in this area.

The Grove City decision, as it is called, held in effect that only federally funded programs are subject to the provisions of federal civil rights law, not the institutions that house them. Although the specific case decided by the Supreme Court concerned only the sex discrimination provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the ruling would also be applicable to federal laws pertaining to discrimination based on race, handicap and age.

Urged on by the civil rights community, Congress has been trying since the Grove City case was decided to frame legislation to counter the Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of the law. The objective, basically, is to expand civil rights coverage to the institutional level. The bishops support this.

Unfortunately, however, over the last 12 years -- since the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that legalized abortion -- a strange and disturbing thing has been happening. There has been an increasing tendency to assert that abortion and abortion-related services constitute a "civil right," entitled to the corresponding protections and legal enforcement.

The bishops do not accept this. Neither do many legal scholars, who hold that, whatever else they may have done, the Supreme Court's 1973 rulings did not confer the special status of a "civil right" on abortion. But the tendency has been there just the same.

The bishops' views on these matters were stated clearly and firmly in congressional testimony several weeks ago by their national organization, the United States Catholic Conference.

The testimony, presented by Father J. Bryan Hehir of the USCC staff, began by affirming the basis for the Catholic commitment to civil rights: "Catholic teaching asserts that every person is created in the image of God. Every person uniquely reflects the presence of God in the world. Unjust discrimination attacks the image of God in our midst."

It is true that significant progress has been made in the area of civil rights in this country over the past 25 years. But that is no cause for complacency. The civil rights laws of the 1960s must be "preserved and enhanced," the Catholic Conference testimony said, "if the gains that we have made are not to be eroded."

Hence the concern evoked by the Grove City ruling, which "allows the possibility for institutions receiving federal funds to practice discriminaton." As the testimony pointed out, the bishops find this "unacceptable." They therefore support legislation to ensure "that institutions receiving federal assistance will uphold the civil rights standards of this nation."

It is against this background of commitment to civil rights and strong legislation that the bishops' position on changes in the pending legislative proposals must be understood.

The revisions endorsed by USCC are in fact of several kinds. They include extension to church-related institutions generally (not just schools) of a "religious tenet" provision ensuring that they cannot be forced to violate religious principles under the guise of "civil rights" enforcement; and an "institutional separability" proviso specifying that institutions within a larger administrative unit (for example, parishes within a diocese) that do not receive federal funds aren't subject to burdensome federal administrative requirements.

The USCC testimony, however, placed special emphasis on the abortion issue, calling for an amendment to ensure that federal civil rights law is not interpreted as requiring abortion coverage in student, employee or other benefit programs.

"Precisely because we are testifying in support of civil rights," the conference said, "the Catholic bishops want to reaffirm their opposition to including in any way the right to abortion as a civil right. . . . The right to life is the fundamental civil right, and it applies to the unborn as well as to the rest of us."

The issues at stake here are exceptionally important ones, not just for the bishops but for our society as a whole. What are civil rights? Which is the real civil right -- abortion or the right to life? Much depends on the answer Congress gives.