The Roman Catholic bishop of Corpus Christi, Tex., has excommunicated a woman from the church because she runs a health clinic that performs abortions.

In what appears to be only the second abortion-related sanction against a citizen activist nationwide, Bishop Rene H. Gracida sent Rachel Vargas two warning letters and then a decree forbidding her to receive sacraments in any Catholic church or receive a Roman Catholic burial.

Vargas, 32, director of Reproductive Services Inc., said in a telephone interview that she would continue to attend Mass but would not take part in communion or other sacraments. "To be severed like this causes me and my family great pain," said Vargas, a lifelong Catholic. "But I know in my heart that being Catholic and pro-choice will not earn me a place in hell."

Gracida's decree said Vargas had broken church canon that forbids a person from assisting in abortions. "Your cooperation in procuring abortions is a sin against God and humanity and against the laws of the Roman Catholic Church," the decree said. "The value of human life must always be protected in the Christian community and society at large."

In 1986, a vicar of the church, acting for the bishop of Rhode Island, excommunicated Mary Ann Sorrentino, director of Planned Parenthood for Rhode Island, because her organization performed abortions.

Vargas said her clinic performs about 200 abortions a month, and 40 percent of the women are Catholic. She said the clinic, which is part of a chain in Texas and Oklahoma, also acts as an adoption agency. "We give women a choice," she said.

For more than a year, Catholic bishops have been engaged in a highly visible anti-abortion campaign. New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, chairman of the bishops' Pro-Life Activities Committee, drew cries of outrage recently when he said in an archdiocesan newspaper that Catholic politicians who advocate abortion or fail to oppose it risk excommunication. At a later news conference O'Connor backpedaled, saying his remarks were not intended as a warning to be carried out.

By declaring Vargas excommunicated, Gracida went farther than his colleagues in the U.S. Roman Catholic hierarchy, and abortion rights groups were quick to jump on that point yesterday.

"Clearly the church has decided to go full tilt ahead intimidating not only politicians but ordinary citizens," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League and a former Catholic. "They are only a short step away from harassing all women who choose abortion."

The Rev. James Provost, a canon lawyer at Catholic University, said church canon is ambiguous on what constitutes assistance in abortions. The key phrase, he said, is "if {the abortion} would not have been committed without their efforts."

Vargas said yesterday she does not help perform abortions. She said she has been working at the clinic for 6 1/2 years, mostly as a counselor advising pregnant women on their options.

She said she believes the bishop decided to move against her after reading a newspaper article last December that quoted her as saying she was Catholic.

Abortion has been a hot topic in Corpus Christi, a largely Hispanic city of 326,000. Last November, a group began staging demonstrations in front of Reproductive Services Inc. and other health clinics, Vargas said. Some citizens aided by the Catholic church have also been lobbying the city council for legislation to ban abortions.

Vargas said another Catholic woman in Corpus Christi who works for another health clinic has received two warning letters from Gracida, but has not yet been excommunicated.