Acknowledging a gap between preaching and practice, a study sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church calls for new steps to increase the salaries and benefits of workers in Catholic institutions.

The study found that U.S. church employees are paid well below those in the secular work force and often have no fringe benefits. Many of them hold down second jobs in order to obtain "ordinary economic rights," said a 94-page report by a special task force of 15 official church agencies, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, the bishops' policy-making body.

The economic situation of church employees was juxtaposed with the Catholic hierarchy's formal statements on justice for workers, including those in religious institutions. The report cited a 1971 statement by the worldwide Synod of Bishops that said, "No one should be deprived of his ordinary rights because he is associated with the church in one way or another."

According to church officials, the question of pay has become more urgent in recent years because of the growing number of lay people working in parishes, parochial schools, Catholic hospitals and other positions of responsibility in the church. Lay men and women, many of them with families, have replaced scores of low-paid members of religious orders, whose numbers have fallen drastically during the past two decades.

In order to hold on to lay professionals, Catholic institutions will have to assure them a measure of economic security, church officials say. The study found that 69 percent of all church employees have considered leaving their jobs in the church, mostly for economic reasons.

"All lay and religious church employees have the right to adequate compensation . . . which allows them to properly care for themselves and their dependents," said the report.

In theory, the Catholic Church has recognized the right of all workers, including its employees, to adequate wages and benefits. In addition to the 1971 statement by the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the U.S. bishops said in their 1983 pastoral letter on economic justice that the church's social teachings apply to employees in its own institutions.

But the study indicates that the practice has lagged behind the teachings. "Becoming an exemplary employer will not be easy, but it will be necessary," said the report. "The credibility of the church itself is at stake."

The median salary of professional workers in the church is $22,258 -- 17.5 percent below the median income in the general population, the report said. It found that 40 percent of married lay employees reported needing "other forms of income" to meet normal living expenses.

The study included a survey of 608 full-time and 60 part-time employees in church institutions around the country. Those surveyed include religious educators, church musicians, campus ministers and administrators of Catholic organizations.

Generally, the report said, church employees need $28,000 to $38,000 a year in wages and benefits to "secure the ordinary economic rights" for themselves and their families. Ordinary economic rights include food, housing, health care, education, security in old age, insurance for sickness and joblessness, leisure and recreation, and the possibility of property ownership.

Meeting the needs of church workers, the study says, will require changes in the practices of church institutions as well as individual Catholics.

"The level of giving on the part of Catholic parishioners needs to be significantly increased," the report said.

"Likewise, church leadership needs to provide increased opportunities for greater participation in decision-making processes in the church, which would, in turn, have a positive effect on the giving levels of Catholics."

Michael Liberato, a spokesman for the 15 church groups, said recent studies have indicated a decline in giving by Catholics, and he attributed this in part to a lack of financial accountability on the part of church institutions.