WASHINGTON -- Leaders in Roman Catholic higher education have embraced a new set of guidelines issued by Pope John Paul II that call on Catholic universities to strengthen their ties to the institutional church.

In their original form, the guidelines were feared by university officials as an encroachment on the freedom and autonomy of their institutions. But the final document, called an "Apostolic Constitution," was welcomed by the education leaders as affirming the institutional autonomy of Catholic universities, which number 230 in the United States.

At the same time, the educators said a section of the document dealing with Catholic theologians would cause some problems in implementation.

"The document is a call to renewal for those who believe in the distinctive character of a Catholic university," said Sister Alice Gallin, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The guidelines, issued Tuesday, direct Catholic universities around the world to take steps to deepen their Catholic identity. The document leaves it up to the universities to apply the guidelines, presented as norms, although it says bishops have "a right and a duty to watch over" the schools in this process.

In emphasizing Catholic identity, the pope is reacting to what some have described as secularizing tendencies in the universities. He says in the document that Catholic principles and values should be present in all university activities and programs.

The document "specifically recognizes institutional autonomy and academic freedom," Gallin said in a statement. "The emphasis is on institutional self-examination and commitment to the Catholic character of its educational program. It is the university that has the primary responsibility for explicating its Catholic character."

The original draft of the document came under criticism from Catholic university leaders when it was released in 1985. "There were fears and worry back then," said the Rev. James Sauve, a Jesuit priest who was involved in the drafting of the document as an adviser to the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

"The 1985 document did not give adequate recognition of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It was far too detailed" in its rules, said Sauve, who is now vice president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, based in Washington. Also, he said in an interview, the original draft said it was primarily up to bishops, not the universities in their dioceses, to safeguard the Catholic character of Catholic universities.

But after consultations with Catholic educators, the Vatican made extensive revisions in the text. Sauve said the document issued by John Paul is "in basic content" what university representatives recommended to the pope when they met with him in Rome last September.

While welcoming the document, Catholic educators also pointed to problems raised by a section on Catholic theologians. The document refers in general to a mandate from the church that is required of all Catholic theologians. The church's code of canon law says all Catholic theologians must hold a formal mandate, or license, but the provision has not been put into effect in the United States.

"Questions regarding Catholic theologians are likely to need further clarification," Gallin said. Sauve said the norm on theologians "will create difficulties" in application, but noted that the problem is not new. The question of how to apply that provision of canon law "has not been resolved in this country," he said.

One theologian, Lisa S. Cahill of Boston College, said the required mandate "is not defined very well . . . {the document} doesn't spell out how it's going to be applied." For instance, she said, it is not clear how a formal mandate for theologians would be granted or revoked and what the role of ecclesiastical authorities would be in the process. Such a procedure, she said, could cause problems in the United States, where most Catholic universities are officially secular in structure -- run by independent boards of lay trustees -- and often receive public funding.

But Cahill, who is vice president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said theologians are not likely to be alarmed by this part of the document, which she described as "fairly general" in its language and open to varying interpretations.

In another section identified by Sauve as addressing the situation in the United States, the document says some of the norms may be applied differently in different regions and countries. Worldwide, there are 950 Catholic universities.