The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, in the third draft of their pastoral letter on the nation's economic life, held fast to their assertion of "economic rights" as among the basic human rights and have appealed for sweeping reforms to wipe out the "moral scandal" of widespread poverty.

The 45,000-word draft released this week, entitled "Economic Justice for All," is expected to be adopted after some debate when the more than 300 bishops gather for their annual meeting in November.

"Participation in the life of the community calls for the protection of the rights to employment, to healthful working conditions, to wages and other benefits sufficient to provide individuals and their families with a standard of living in keeping with human dignity and to the possibility of property ownership," the new draft says.

"Any denial of these rights harms persons and wounds human community."

The document calls employment "a basic right, a right which protects the freedom of all to participate in the economic life of society."

The third draft, produced by a five-man committee headed by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, follows the thrust of earlier drafts, which were enthusiastically received by the bishops but stirred some controversy among lay people in some parts of the church.

The statement argues that "the international economic order . . . is in crisis; the gap between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor people within countries is widening."

Institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund "should be reformed or replaced" because they are "neither representative nor capable of dealing adequately with current problems," the draft said.

The United States "cannot be the sole savior of the developing world," the pastoral says. But it calls for "a U.S. international economic policy designed to help empower people everywhere . . . and to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared equitably among them."

The statement charges that "more than 33 million Americans are poor; by any reasonable standard another 20 to 30 million are needy." The burdens of poverty fall most heavily, the draft says, on blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, women and children.

"Today, children are the largest single group among the poor," which "seriously threatens the nation's future. That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore."

As they did in their pastoral letter denouncing nuclear war, the bishops charge that the investment of "human creativity and material resources in the productions of weapons of war" makes growing problems of poverty "even more difficult to solve."

Turning to their own house, the bishops note, "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the church should be exemplary."

The draft calls specifically for "increased resources . . . for the support of elderly members of religious communities." A study released last week reported that religious orders are $2.5 billion short of the funds needed to take care of elderly members and establish pension plans for other members.