U.S. Catholic bishops began debate here yesterday on a position paper that would call on church institutions to patronize only those firms that have affirmative action and equal opportunity programs.

In addition, the proposed "Pastoral Letter on Racism" urges individual Catholics and church institutions to examine their investment portfolios to "determine whether racist institutions and policies are inadvertently being supported."

Another section of the statement under debate at the bishops' annual meeting, calls for strong efforts to make Catholic schooling available to "the poor and the dispossessed," a category in which racial minorities are disproportionately represented, the letter states.

"No sacrifice can be so great . . . no short-range goals can be so important as to warrant the lessening of our commitment to Catholic education in minority neighborhoods."

The proposed statement made no reference to the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi organizations.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Francis of Newark, chairman of the committee that prepared the letter, said the committee "tried to avoid mentioning" groups such as the Klan "so that people would not think that just because they were not members of the Klan they were therefore not racist." The statements calls racism "a sin" and "a scandal."

It maintains that while there has been a decrease in "blatant forms" of racism in the last 20 years, the "sense of urgency" to change the racial climate in recent years "has yielded to an apparent acceptance of the status quo." Debate and final action on the racism statement is scheduled for tomorrow.

A financial statement presented to the bishops yesterday indicates that the hierarchy's national office based here faces $1 million deficit in its projected $14.5 million budget for next year largely as the result of inflation.

To help meet the shortfall, bishops are being asked to increase the payment from their collections -- a kind of head tax for the national office -- from the present eight cents to 10 cents per Catholic.

An expected deficit this year of $436,643 will be met from investment income, usually set aside for emergencies, according to the financial report made available to the bishops.

Archbishop Thomas C. Donnellen of Atlanta, the bishops' conference treasurer, said that the increased amount for next year was necessary "to live up to the imperative we have of a national presence" -- that is, activities such as refugee work, recruitment for the priesthood and ecumenical affairs. Bishops will vote today on the increased assessment.

Archbishop Jean Jadot, the official representatives of the Vatican to the church here, admonished the American bishops to emulate Pope John Paul II in his concern for young people. During the recent papal tour, Jadot said, young people "immediately recognized (the pontiff) because he listens to them. He seeks to understand the pressures they are experiencing. He knows that so many boys and girls are trying very hard to adopt solid values."

Archbishop John Quinn of San Franciso, president of the bishops confererence, also urged his fellow bishops to make the most of the "open moment for the faith" that he said the papal visit created. "Our culture may be very secular," said Quinn, "but people are hungry for a deeper truth beyond the material and for meaning in life that cannot be found in merely secular values."

Quinn said that "in particular, we have to look for a more creative approach to the anger and anguish of women. The cultural issue of woman in society intensifies the religious issue of women in the church."

Maintaining that "the teaching of the church is clear" in foreclosing the priesthood to women, Quinn said that "however intensely people may feel about the ordination issue, we cannot afford to be paralyzed by it." The issue of women in the church, he continued, "is a challenging and creative opportunity to be welcomed and not a problem to be feared."