"I've got five kids and a '76 station wagon with 130,000 miles on it that's not very suitable anymore," began Michael McCauley.

"Now, given the famine in Ethiopia, given the problems of the people I deal with every day, can I buy one of the new vans for my family? Or, as a good Christian, should I stay with the '76 station wagon for a few more thousand miles" and give more money to the poor?

McCauley, director of the Tri-County Community Action Agency in Hughsville, Md., didn't expect an answer from the 30 or so men and women gathered at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center Monday night.

He was giving an example of the way the Roman Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on "Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy" has involved him at a practical level, with its insistence on "a preferential option for the poor."

McCauley and the others, a cross section of Catholics from all walks of life, were invited by Archbishop James A. Hickey to come and talk about the controversial pastoral letter that the bishops are revising this weekend at their national meeting in Collegeville, Minn.

It was the third such session held in the archdiocese in recent weeks. There were labor leaders and corporate executives, college professors and housewives, social workers and real estate developers from throughout the archdiocese.

The economics pastoral, Hickey explained in a brief introductory statement, is an attempt by the bishops "to apply Biblical values and church tradition to the most productive economy on earth . . . to seek the relationship between religious principles and moral values, and economic reality."

The pastoral calls for a greater equity in the distribution of wealth; the recognition of universal "economic rights," including adequate nutrition, housing and employment, to be achieved through a greater sharing of economic power and opportunity. It is sharply critical of the fact that 15.2 percent of all Americans live below the poverty line, with women, children and members of racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately represented. It calls for joint efforts by the public and private sectors to attack these problems.

The pastoral has been widely criticized, both in and out of the church.

Hickey defended the document briefly at the meeting here. "As bishops," he said, "we love our nation. We are not trying to put it down. But we do need to point out that too many have been left behind" in the economic struggle.

Saying that "I am here to listen . . . . We are here to share your thoughts," the archbishop sat down and picked up a yellow legal pad and pen and spent the rest of the evening taking notes.

"One of the proudest things for me is that the church is beginning to speak out" on economic problems, said Kathryn Williams, a District real estate agent.

"It was too long in coming," said Ken Kovack, a Steelworkers Union official from Rockville. The points made in the pastoral "needed to be said and I'm glad it started the controversies and discussions," he added.

James Ferguson, an investment counselor, said that his reading of the pastoral gave him "a better, sharper concern for the disadvantaged" as he studies proposed tax legislation, with an eye for how different plans would affect the poor.

Arthur S. Flemming, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, former chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the only non-Catholic in the group, said that he was so impressed with the pastoral, "I've been using it for the last 4 1/2 months," in the adult Sunday school class he teaches at Foundry United Methodist Church.

Flemming praised the massive consultative process that has gone into the pastoral, both in preparation of the first draft, released last November, and the ongoing critiquing of the document since then, in anticipation of a second draft. "That process means a lot to our nation," he said.

The first draft has appeared in diocesan papers across the country and nearly every diocese has conducted some sort of program to get reaction to the document. In addition, a number of major universities and other scholarly centers have conducted symposia on the pastoral.

Some at the session here believed that causes close to their heart -- the problems resulting from the national debt, the need to preserve the minimum wage, the economic situation of women and children, the millions of jobless who because of government statistical norms are not reported among the unemployed -- were either left out or inadequately treated.

Several asked for greater emphasis on the need for the Catholic Church to practice what it preaches. "We have to have economic justice in the parish," said the Rev. Richard Burton of St. Raphael's Church in Rockville. This is increasingly important when, because of the growing shortage of priests and nuns, "we have to rely on lay ministers. They must have a just wage," he said.

The most common criticism voiced concerned the length of the pastoral -- 55,000 words -- and the jargon-laden prose in which the ideas are presented. "This document is simply not going to be read and the bishops have to recognize that," said Martin Connor, professor of business at Georgetown University.

But nobody had any suggestions on which parts might be omitted.