NEW YORK, SEPT. 27 -- Religious leaders today condemned a new movie rating system as pandering to "sexually exploitative material."

The church officials urged the Motion Picture Association of America to reconsider its action announced Wednesday to replace the X rating with NC-17, which would bar children under 17 from theaters showing such films.

The U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches, which includes most major Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations, charged that the movie industry association "has caved in to the commercial interests of those who are attempting to get sexually exploitative material into general theatrical release."

They urged members of the National Association of Theater Owners to refuse to book NC-17 movies, and newspapers and others to refuse to accept advertising for them.

Local congregations also were urged to monitor enforcement of age restrictions under the NC-17 category and other categories.

"Changing the name of the 'X' category does not change the nature of the material," the church leaders said in a joint statement.

"It is an arrogant and ill advised decision which deeply affects the public good. It was made in isolation, without public consultation. The change is neither in the public interest nor in the best interest of the community," they said.

The statement was issued by Bishop Edward J. O'Donnell, chairman of the communication committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and by Beverly Chain, who heads the National Council's communications unit.

They said the motion picture association's action "will be used by those who already are calling for government regulation of the media.

"That is unfortunate, because a voluntary system of self-regulation that skirts constitutional concerns, yet affords at least a minimum of protection to the public, is workable."