When a debate is really important, it has a way of bringing out the very best and the very worst arguments in us. Thus the pros and the cons on a nuclear freeze extend from the sublime to the ridiculous to, alas, the non-argument of the smear.
On the one hand, the pastoral letter drafted by the Roman Catholic bishops has taken the proliferation of nuclear weapons to be a subject urgently suitable for scrutiny in the light of Christian morality. Bishop Michael Kenny of Juneau, Alaska, has observed: ''If an examination of the Gospel . . . forces us to place greater limits on what is morally admissible in the name of self-defense, so be it,'' adding: ''The Gospel must be proclaimed, welcome or not, in season or out.''
President Reagan's national security adviser, William P. Clark, hoped the bishops would also be cognizant of the ''morality of maintaining effective nuclear deterrent forces.''
So much for the high ground. Lately the arguments on both sides have been considerably less fastidious. The pro-freeze forces have relied too simply on scare tactics - the image of a small child holding a blighted flower in a cosmic landscape of smoking rubble. Meanwhile, the White House has suggested that the freeze is ''inspired'' by those who ''want the weakening of America.''
The freeze movement, it is charged, is being ''manipulated'' by communist agents and those who are persuaded are communist ''dupes'' - including, presumably, former director of the CIA William Colby, former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, the National Council of Churches, the United Automobile Workers, Gen. James Gavin, and Ann Landers. One anti-freeze advertisement claimed that 13 pro-freeze groups ''have been identified as Communist front organizations'' - among them, the American Friends Service Committee.
In the November election a bilateral freeze won endorsement in eight of the nine states where the issue appeared on the ballot. An estimated 10.8 million Americans voted in favor of it, compared to 7.2 million against.
Such broad numbers (and such moderate individuals) cannot be blown away by a little latter-day McCarthyism - any more than the Pentagon can be blown away by an overly emotional warning against Armageddon.
A good thing, too. This issue is too consequential to be decided by hysteria from either side.
And, in fact, the freeze is only part of it - this national and international self-questioning about war and peace on the nuclear scale that has become the topic of the '80s.
How opinion scatters! - from pacifism at one extreme to an impulse at the other extreme to drop The Bomb and get it over with.
It is a subject prone to polarization, but for everybody's sake the debate must not be reduced to ''Better dead than Red'' vs. ''Better Red than dead'' bumper stickers. There are too many complex questions in between:
Is it the ultimate realism to think one can close the ''window of vulnerability'' by more and bigger warheads? Or is this the ultimate fantasy?
Can we afford both the nuclear fortress our generals tell us we need, and the social program we say we want? Or is the nearest ''window of vulnerability'' the world economy? - heading for a collapse in two years, according to the New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn, unless both superpowers apply drastic cuts to their military budgets.
Even these questions are too dramatic, requiring further toning down and modifying rather than heightening.
We are talking here of spiritual as well as physical survival, and the one thing we cannot afford is the reckless generalization from either side, like the anti-freeze poster, reading ''The Soviet Union needs you! Support a US nuclear freeze,'' while displaying a photo of the Red Army parading in front of the Kremlin.
Would Russians favoring a nuclear freeze be guilty therefore of supporting the Pentagon? Bring on a little of that moral finesse we started off with!
Everybody - both hawk and dove - has become so terribly clever at imagining the Soviet arsenal. It might be a beginning if only we could use our mirror-mentalities to see reflected a face for a face instead of a missile for a missile. Not necessarily a friendly face. Just a human face.