Los Angeles. -- Acouple of years ago, the Roman Catholic cardinal of New York hired a public-relations firm to help him in the media wars over abortion. That a prince of the church would no longer trust his own spiritual authority, that the preacher in his pulpit was no longer sure he was reaching his congregation, that the priest needed a public-relations firm -- here was evidence of a church that had lost its confidence.
A couple of evenings ago, on ''Entertainment Tonight,'' there was the cardinal of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, proposing a new code for movies and television. The cardinal wants Hollywood to police itself -- to remove from the screen, big and small, such things as nudity and suggestive dancing, forbid the glamorization of notorious criminals and the showing of policemen dying at the feet of outlaws.
The cardinal was, in effect, conceding to Hollywood its influence over our moral lives. It is Hollywood, the cardinal was saying, not the church that holds the imagination of the American public.
The cardinal was soft-spoken. I was disappointed. I wanted him to name names, to go after his fellow Catholic, that Austrian body builder who has made millions with high- tech mayhem. (Does the cardinal know about the ''Terminator'' video game whose object is to shoot cops?)
There is an ancient, a holy tradition of the nay-sayer, the Old Testament prophet, dark and ragged, raging against the sinful city. I would have liked to have seen Cardinal Mahony on television overturning a few Calvin Klein cologne bottles or trashing a few Madonna videos.
Better, I wanted him to take on ''Entertainment Tonight,'' to say something about the influence of ''Entertainment Tonight'' on the moral tone of the country. But the cardinal was polite. (The segment after his spot was a generously photographed preview of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.)
The cardinal must be polite. He has to go to banquets, after all, with the stuffed shirts and the fat cats who run the entertainment business. And perhaps he has heard that television is best used -- so communications experts say -- with a gentle voice.
The cardinal's code for film and television will be voluntary. But out from the canyons of Hollywood have come the cries of First Amendment protection from overpaid screen writers. Industry spokesman Jack Valenti, he of the silk tie and the silk suit who otherwise is never seen except at the Academy Awards, offers: ''I would not try to tell creative people how to write their story any more than I would try to instruct Hemingway, Beethoven or Picasso . . . ''
The cardinal was right: Real evil is emanating from the TV and movie screen. And nearly everyone in America will tell you that something is wrong in America. Forget the problem of Japan! America is losing its soul. Our children know it. Our children watch vaporous images of violence and sexuality and turn more and more dull.
The concession to Hollywood's influence implied by the cardinal's proposal is so vast that it takes my breath away. There is implied, too, an admission that the church cannot influence how Americans regard sexuality or violence -- that it is Hollywood's job. Is it impertinent to ask the cardinal, what our own church has been doing?
Clearly the church has lost its authority for many of its own members. On sexual matters, for example, on birth control, homosexuality, divorce, we are more apt to heed the pop psychologist on the Oprah Winfrey show than the advice of the priest at the nearby rectory.
I think of the sexual scandals within the rectory of recent years and of the church's own refusal to acknowledge their implication. But the problem of faltering authority is a much larger one, finally. We are losing our faith in our own faith. Yet I know teen-agers who are literally dying for lack of some notion of love. And I know teen-agers who have been saved by learning the lesson of helping one another.
Instead of conceding to Paramount Pictures or to the Fox Network our teaching influence, I urge Cardinal Mahony to inspire me and our fellow Catholics out of our lethargy. Do not bother the Hollywood producer with talk of a code; better to minister to his lonely children in Beverly Hills or to minister to the drug addicts and the teen-age prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard.
Religion is nothing if it is only finger-wagging. A church is nothing if it is only censors and scissors. I cannot forget that, at a time of moral collapse, the most influential Catholic in the world is a tiny nun who sits with the dying and waits with the dying in far away India.
Richard Rodriguez is author of ''Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father'' to be published by Viking in November. wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.