A Vatican admonition to American bishops expressing concern over diocesan newspaper articles that "cause harm to the faith of the people because of lack of respect" for the teaching authority of the church has stirred a small tempest in Catholic press circles.

The criticism, transmitted to bishops in this country by Rome's apostolic delegate, Archbishop Pio Laghi, cited no examples of publications or writers found objectionable by the Vatican's secretariat of state.

But priest-author Andrew Greeley, whose column is carried in 40 diocesan weeklies, said the Vatican's criticism was aimed at him and denounced it as "appalling." He told Religious News Service that "if I were an American Catholic layman, I would be angry at the charge that a column could shake my faith."

Asked about greeley's contention, a spokesman for the apostolic delegate said the instructions from the Vatican mentioned no names and were not confined to any one person or publication. The message from the Vatican "didn't limit it [the criticism] to just one source," said the Rev. Blaise Cupich. "If [the Vatican] had a problem with only one person, it would have directed the letter to him instead of writing to all the bishops."

Leaders of the Catholic Press Association have pretested to Archbishop Laghi that Catholic journalists in this country have "a strong adherence to the faith" and the teaching authority of the church, and that the "general nature of your criticism" is unfair. They suggested the complaint letters the Vatican says it receives from angry readers reflect misunderstanding, that what one reader perceives as "deviation from the faith" is viewed by another as "open reporting and discussion of controversial matters."

The criticism from the Vatican has focused on an area of great sensitivity.

Spearheaded by such independent publications as the National Catholic Reporter, the trend in the nearly two decades since the Second Vatican Council has been to transform most diocesan papers from official house organs to journals reflecting the broader range of news and views in the church today.

Not infrequently this has meant articles, editorials and letters to the editor challenging the official church position on such controversial issues as birth control, celibacy or ordination of women.

Editors of the 144 diocesan publications prize their freedom and, according to James Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Press Association, the bishops are by and large satisfied with the publications. "With a very few exception, bishops do not tell editors what to publish," he said. Interference by the bishop with editorial freedom is "a very rare thing," he said.

The Laghi letter was sent to bishops in this country on April 27, but was made public late last month by The Wanderer, an ultra-conservative Catholic weekly that opposes any questioning of church doctrine and has crusaded against views expressed by liberal Catholic theologians.

The letter said that "with increasing frequency the Holy See receives letters from the United States complaining about articles appearing in Catholic newspapers, including diocesan publications, which cause harm to the faith of the people because of lack of respect for the teaching and decisions of the magisterium . . . The impact of such criticism is heightened when columns are syndicated and widely circulated."

Greeley, who has often been at odds with church leaders, said he is "appalled" at the enorof the Vatican criticism and "worried about the future of the American Catholic Church. It means that the crank letters going to Rome are now being taken seriously," he told Religious News Service.

Doyle and the Rev. Norman J. Muckerman, president of the Catholic Press Association, in their letter to Laghi, also defended the airing of controversy in Catholic journals, despite the criticism from readers.

"It has been our experience from talking to editors of our member publications that almost daily they themselves receive letters from such people who mistakenly consider open reporting and discussion of controversial matters as deviation from the faith or from loyalty to the Holy See," the letter said. "The experience of our Catholic press leads us to believe that issues are clarified, not confused, by free and open discussions."