American Catholic bishops have voted, pending expected approval by the Vatican, to permit American Catholics to receive communion in the hand.

The bishops' action provides that the faithful who wish to receive the communion wafer according to the traditional method, with the priest placing it directly in their mouths, may continue to do so.

The proposal to petition the Vatican to permit the communion in the hand, as is now practiced in most of the Catholic world, came before the bishops at their meeting last month in Chicago, but fell just short of the necessary two-thirds vote to authorize it at that time.

A subsequent mail poll of the bishops who were absent from that meeting has since produced a total of 190 favorable votes of a total 274 eligible voting members of the bishops' conference, church officials said yesterday.

Communion in the hand was authorized eight years ago in a Vatican document that expressed the hope that the practice might increase among Catholics "the sense of their dignity as members of the mystical body of Christ (the Church)."

Since that time, it has been authorized in 53 countries of the world, including most of Europe, Canada and Mexico. The hierarchy in each country or region must request Vatican approval to introduce the practice in their area.

Twice before - in 1970 and 1973 - the American hierarchy failed to approve communion in the hand, which most church leaders concede is practiced widely despite the lack of official sanction.

In debate on the question last month, John Cardinal Carberry of St. Louis, who has mobilized prayer and letter-writing campaigns against communion in the hand, warned that the practice could lead to "irreverence and profanation" and carried "danger of devil-worship."

A church spokesman warned that despite the favorable vote by the hierarchy here, communion in the hand "would be strictly optional and a decision on its implementation would depend upon the pastoral judgment of the (individual) bishop."

In any case, the statement warned that it is not to be practiced until the Vatican formally grants approval.