ST. PAUL, MINN. -- When the U.S. Catholic bishops adopted a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy in the fall of 1986, they committed themselves to some positions at odds with the current mood of the country.

Just how far those positions are from the thinking of many U.S. Catholics has become clear during the last year to Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, head of the committee that spent nearly six years discussing, researching and drafting the document. What he has found, he said, is that U.S. Catholics and other Americans are such "hyperindividualists" that it is difficult to preach economic justice to them.

The archbishop said he had received "stacks of letters from Catholics around the country saying things like: 'I have worked hard for what I got and I am going to keep it. God has been good to me. The lazy slob next door has no rights for what I have earned.' "

"The concept of the 'common good' hardly means anything any more to many of our people," he told several hundred pastors and seminarians attending the annual midwinter convocation at Luther Northwestern Seminary here.

As a result of reactions to the pastoral letter, Weakland said he has changed the way he talks about the gospel.

"I am very cautious now about my preaching," he said. "For a while, I have to admit, I preached an enormous amount about personal virtue and never talked about community much. Now I find I have to always emphasize what that gospel means not just for me as an individual but for me as a member of a community. You and I have a burden in this American culture to make sure we preach that style and not reinforce what would really be a bad kind of biblical message.

"I often take biblical passages on dying to self and explain that you can't become a real disciple of Christ unless you are other-oriented. There has to be that dimension in your life of dying to self for others."

The prelate said Americans have been so frightened about collectivism, which supresses human dignity and development, that they are unable to see the difference between it and hyperindividualism, which he said promotes selfishness.

Weakland said that when writing the pastoral letter the bishops could not presume that U.S. Catholics knew about the biblical basis for justice or about Catholic social teaching. He said in his lecture, however, that Catholics have become more biblically oriented since the Second Vatican Council when the vernacular came to be used in the liturgy.

But Catholics still have a problem with Vatican documents on social justice, the archbishop said. Weakland said that Catholicism has been split in the last 20 years by the Vatican II document on the role of the church in the modern world. "Wealthy Catholics get nervous" when the church talks about social justice, he said.

The wealthy image of the Catholic Church in the United States is also a barrier to teaching about social justice, he said. That image also has diminished the credibility of the pastoral letter among poorer churches in Latin America.

"We teach best by witnessing today -- not by pastoral letters," he said.

One incident that changed him and influenced his thinking on economic matters, he said, was a 1972 article by theologian Karl Rahner. In it, Rahner wrote, "When this generation stands before the judgment seat of God it will be worse for us than for Sodom and Gomorrah. The only thing we can plead is weakness."

"I've lived with that essay and it still shakes me," the archbishop said. "I feel churches are not doing enough. Somehow we have to come to grips with the greatest challenge of the day. We are wealthy and millions around the globe are starving and we haven't solved it."