Msgr. John F. Donoghue, who has served as top administrator of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington under three archbishops here, was named yesterday by Pope John Paul II as bishop of the diocese of Charlotte, N.C., the third Washington priest to be made a bishop in recent months.

Donoghue, 56, as moderator of the curia of the Washington archdiocese, runs the day to day affairs of the archdiocese under Archbishop James A. Hickey. Donoghue will succeed Bishop Michael J. Begley, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.

Hickey praised Donoghue as "one of our finest and most respected priests. He has the esteem of his brothers in the clergy and of the countless people he served for almost 30 years" in the Washington archdiocese.

Donoghue, a Washington native who has spent his entire career here, was in Charlotte yesterday to meet church leaders on the day his appointment was announced from Rome. He will be formally installed as bishop on Dec. 18.

Bishop-elect Donoghue goes from an area where Roman Catholicism had its beginnings in this country, in Maryland, to a state where less than 2 percent of the population is Catholic -- the smallest ratio in the nation. A large proportion of North Carolina Catholics are migrants from New England and other Northern industrial cities who moved there with transplanted textile and furniture factories.

The 59,537 Catholics of the Charlotte diocese, which was split from the Diocese of Raleigh 12 years ago, belong to 63 parishes and 22 missions scattered over 46 counties in the western part of North Carolina.

Ordained at St. Matthew's Cathedral here in 1955, Donoghue has spent the bulk of his career in administrative rather than pastoral work, a pattern that has marked the great majority of appointments to the Catholic hierarchy, according to recent studies.

After serving as assistant pastor at St. Bernard's in Riverdale and Holy Face Parish in Great Mills, Md., and a year of graduate study in canon law at Catholic University, Donoghue was named by Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle as assistant chancellor of the archdiocese in 1966 and chancellor in 1972.

He continued in that post under Cardinal William W. Baum. In a reorganization of archdiocesan offices under Archbishop Hickey in 1981, Donoghue was named secretary for support services and early this year was given his present title.

Whatever the title, Donoghue operated quietly behind the scenes, dealing with questions as varied as the opening of a new parish to the recent controversy over the decision by the Sisters of Providence to close Immaculata Preparatory School.

In addition, he has helped direct the affairs of half a dozen agencies related to the archdiocese, ranging from the Archdiocesan Cemetery Board to St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home.

"He was at the heart of just about everything that went on here," said Barrett McGurn, archdiocesan spokesman.

Earlier this year, two other Washington archdiocese priests were named bishops. They are Bishop Sean O'Malley of the Virgin Islands and Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard of Baltimore.