The Rev. Richard J. Neuhaus, a prominent Lutheran scholar and writer known for the strong barbs he has directed against church liberalism, has decided to become a Roman Catholic.

In a prepared statement that appears certain to send shock waves through the American Lutheran community, Neuhaus said he will become a Catholic today and then begin preparations to enter the priesthood.

Neuhaus, whose imminent departure from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been rumored for weeks, said in the statement, "This decision is the result of many years of prayer, reflection, study, conversation, and, I firmly believe, the leading of the Holy Spirit."

In writings and in public appearances, Neuhaus has contended that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, out of which Lutheranism grew, was not intended as a permanent split but a temporary corrective.

He said in an interview that he would be received into the Catholic faith by New York Cardinal John O'Connor in ceremonies at a chapel in the cardinal's residence adjacent to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Scheduled to act as sponsors are the Rev. Avery Dulles, a prominent Catholic theologian who is a convert from Presbyterianism, and George Weigel, director of the conservative James Madison Foundation in Washington.

Neuhaus, who has never married, said he plans to begin training for the Roman Catholic priesthood in the months after his acceptance into the church.