NEW YORK -- More than 400 U.S. and Canadian Roman Catholic theologians have accused the Vatican of stifling change in the church, inhibiting freedom of expression and wrongly restricting the role of women.

The theologians, in a statement released Wednesday, also accused the Vatican of attempting to diminish the role of its bishops and churches in favor of more centralized control, attacking the rights of theologians who criticize the church and hampering the drive for Christian unity.

The "role of the local churches, of their bishops and of the bishops' conferences is being diminished," the theologians declared in the 2,400-word statement.

It was distributed to the Catholic Theological Society of America's 1,400 U.S. and Canadian members. Of the 544 who returned it, 431, or 79 percent, endorsed it.

The document, issued on the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, accused the church's leadership of failing to carry out changes called for by Vatican II.

Instead, the theologians said, the Vatican has treated theologians' public disagreement with church positions as defiance and attempted to restrict their freedom of expression through loyalty oaths and professions of faith.

The statement, titled "Do Not Extinguish the Spirit," was drawn up by a committee headed by the Rev. John Boyle of the University of Iowa. It took its name from an admonition by Saint Paul, the New Testament missionary-apostle.

Development of "legitimate public roles for women in the church is being neglected," the theologians said, adding that this is pointed up by its contrast with the increasing prominence of women in most fields.

"Rather than being viewed as a sign of the times, feminism is consistently viewed with suspicion," they said, adding that candidates for bishop "are screened to insure their unqualified opposition to the ordination of women."

Concerning efforts for Christian unity, hopes that "were so high in the years following the council, have been disappointed" and "the vigor of Catholic commitment to it seems diminished," the theologians said.

"An authoritarian style of acting and inappropriate interventions that do not respect the distinctive traditions of churches . . . rekindle fears among Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants that acceptance" of the papacy "would mean the destruction of the distinctive traditions of their churches," the theologians' statement said.