Pope John Paul's encyclical on work, issued last month, was rated by a panel of priests and social scientists here this week as a significant and "radical" document which, if taken seriously, could bring changes in the Catholic church as well as secular society.

The encyclical, which emphasizes the value of the worker as a human being and calls labor unions an "indispensible element" of modern society, was the subject of a seminar Monday at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank.

Msgr. George Higgins, a Roman Catholic social justice expert who is on the theology faculty of Catholic University, said the encylical is "a more radicl document than it has been portrayed. . . . It calls for a complete reexamination of the world's political and economic structures."

Higgins speculated that if the papal document has been read at the White House, "They would have had to disagree with it." In the encylical's discussion of social structures for the future, Higgins said, Pope John Paul is "carrying on a 21st century debate," while the White House is "bogged down in whether we ought to have food stamps or not."

The document is of particular significance in this country "because of where we are in the United States," said Marcus Raskin, cofounder and senior fellow at the institute. "We are a hundred years behind the Catholic Church" in terms of social policy, he said.

Terry Herndon, executive director of the National Education Association, said "the most compelling single statement in the document is the ringing affirmation that the value of work is determined not by the kind of work being done but by the fact that the one doing it is a person."

In the question period, Sister Carol Coston, director of Network, an unofficial Catholic organization involved in lobbying for social justice causes, suggested that the encyclical constitutes "a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church to change."

The document's assertion that women who work outside the home should not suffer sex discrimination means that the church in this country should support the Equal Rights Amendment, Coston said. While individual bishops have supported ERA, the full body of bishops in this country has refused to take such a stand.

Coston also pointed out the inconsistency between Pope John Paul's strong support of labor unions and the fact that Catholic schools and hospitals in this country have fought unionization of their workers.

"Everybody knows the [the Catholic Church] stands for labor unions," Higgins said in agreement. "But it has done a poor job in regard to women and organized labor within its own institutions."

The Rev. Robert Drinan found the pope's encyclical somewhat ambiguous on the question of working women. "He does say that there should be equal pay for women and no discrimination," Drinan said. But in other sections of the document, Drinan said, "He's not very clear whether a woman should aspire to some role other than wife and mother."

On the other hand, the former congressman said, the document "is the first papal encyclical to address working women. It's not that bad, but it's no entirely satisfactory." Drinan speculated that the document "may be the beginning of papal thinking about this topic."

The Rev. Philip Land, a staff member of the Center of Concern, suggested that "the day of a pope writing encyclicals by himself ought to be over. People in this room ought to be helping write encyclicals. Higgins agreed that there "ought to be a more collegial way of writing these documents," a change, he said, that "is not going to happen with this pope, obviously."