The most heavily criticized section of the Roman Catholic bishops pastoral letter on the economy -- specific recommendations for applying moral principles to national economic policy -- will survive in future drafts of the controversial document, according to Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland.

"Bishops must at times become quite concrete if their teaching is to be credible," Weakland, who heads the committee responsible for the economy document, said in a speech last night at Georgetown University.

"I think so often of the accusations against the church in Germany and also in Italy during the Nazi and Facist periods, because the churches so often were talking generalities and not being specific in their condemnations," he said.

The first draft of the bishops' letter, which was released last November, criticized the disparity of income distribution in this country: 15 percent of the population living below the poverty line, with racial minorities and women bearing the brunt of the poverty burden, while at the other end of the scale, the richest 20 percent of the population receives more income than the combined total of the bottom 70 percent.

It challenged government and the private sector to work at reducing unemployment to no more than 3 or 4 percent.

The letter called for a more adequate public assistance program that would show respect for the needy, strengthen the family instead of jeopardizing it, and encourage rather than penalize gainful employment.

On an international level, it called on the government and private industry alike to follow a morally responsible policy of economic dealings with other nations, particularly those in the Third World.

In text, prepared for a speech sponsored by the Jesuit-run Woodstock Center, Weakland said that "one of the principal critiques" of the first draft of the pastoral letter was "that it is too heavy on the role of government.

"Our letter is written when government is a bad word and the trend seems to be against us," he said. "Personally, I do not consider it a healthy trend in the United States to be constantly denigrating government. If government is in need of reform, let it be reformed."

Catholic social teaching traditionally has "a very positive attitude towards government and is, therefore, out of step with so much political thinking today," he said.

Repeated charges that the bishops' pastoral letter "is a welfare-state document calling for higher and higher subsidies for those who do not wish to work is a caricature of the document and does it a grave injustice," the archbishop said.

Weakland's committee originally had planned to have a revised draft of the letter ready for the June meeting of the bishops, but announced several weeks ago that because of the volume of responses and suggestions the initial draft attracted, the second draft will not be completed until September.

In his address here, Weakland emphasized, as did the pastoral letter itself, the church's responsibility to practice what it preaches about economic justice.

The church "will have to work at all levels to put its own house in order," he said. Salaries of employes paid at almost all levels will have to be brought into line."

For decades, Catholic schools and hospitals in this country have wrestled with the transition "from a work force that consisted mostly of underpaid sisters, to lay employes," he said.

While there has been progress, "the salaries are not yet at the level they must be. We will have to examine our labor practices more closely . . . . We will have to be more clear about our investment policies and more open about the use of those funds."

Weakland said that the church must always concern itself with problems of poverty. "There will always be a need for charity," he said. But in a jab at those who contend that the private sector, rather than the government, must take responsibility for the poor, he added, "No society can burden the churches with its welfare program, unless they give the churches the power to tax."

In addition to charity, he stressed that "it is also the duty of the churches to preach justice. The solution to these problems are not to be found in the realm of charity . . . but in the order of justice."

Governmental anti-inflationary policies that put 8 million people out of work raise "a justice question with regard to those 8 million," he said."

The archbishop conceded that "our Catholic teaching on the difference between justice and charity is not well known among our people," and must be elaborated in the second draft of the pastoral.

The committee is also taking to heart admonitions that the document be "more positive and hopeful," he said.

"If we can begin to convince the people of this nation to see their economy from the point of view of higher values to be lived out and shared, we will be indeed positive," he said.

While generally appreciative of the wide response and interest the pastoral letter has generated, Weakland said he was "unhappy that bishops seem to be monopolizing the moral debate on these issues." He called it "regrettable" that the Catholic laity lack a comparable national forum where such matters could be debated.

Such a forum "certainly would avoid the ambivalence of any one group of lay people taking unto themselves the prerogative of speaking for the laity." The reference was apparently to a self-styled Lay Commission, an ad hoc group of conservative lay Catholics chaired by former secretary of the treasury William Simon, that wrote its own "pastoral letter" on economic issues.