The American Catholic bishops took a giant step today to welcome back to the folds tens of thousands of "separated Catholics" by lifting the penalty of automatic ex-communication for Catholics who have divorced and remarried.

Meeting in executive session, the bishops voted 231 to 8 "to seek to remove [this] burden from the shoulders of divorced and remarried Catholics," accordinf to Bishop Cletus O'Donnell of Madison, Wis., chairman of the hierarchy's committee on canon law.

Today's action does not alter church law which holds marriage to be indissoluble but it does have major significance, nonetheless.

It signals the first major turnabout by the hierarchy on the divorce question in modern times. It also marks the difference between viewing persons involved in failed marriages as sinners to be "branded and cast out," as one bishop said, or offering them the love and prayers and services of the church in trying to rebuild their lives.

Bishop O'Donnell said the bishops hope their action today will encourage divorced and remarried Catholics to seek out church marriage tribunals "to see whether their return to full eucharistic communion is possible."

Divorce Catholics who have remarried without having a church annulment of their first marriage are considered by the church to be living in a state of continuing sin and are thus barred from receiving holy communion. Their status can be regularized, however, if a church tribunal examining the first marriage finds it was not valid. Grounds for such findings have expanded greatly in recent years.

Today's action by the bishops must still be ratified by the Vatican before becomes effective. Bishop O'Donnell said he expects such approval to be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the bishops produced a cliffhanger here today in their secret ballot vote on the highly emotional question of communion in the hand.

A tally of the bishops' written ballots fell "slightly short," a church spokesman said, of the two-thirds majority needed to authorize priests to pace the holy communion water in the worshipper's hand instead of in the open mouth as is now required.

The 28 bishops of the American hierarchy who were absent from today's meeting must now be sent ballots by mail, along with a summary of the impassioned debate which preceded the vote here, in order to decide the issue.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops officials refue to divulge just how close was the vote here today.

Communion in the hand, already authorized in Roman Catholic churches in 53 countries, is one of those issues which polarizes along strictly conservative-liberal lines.

Proponents of change maintain that the traditional pratice of the priest of the priest placing the water in the communicant's open mouth - "like feeding a baby bird," they scornfully describe it - symbolizes a servility degrading to the worshipper and not in harmony with Christian theology.

The fervor of the conservative defenders of the traditional practice reflected their conviction that this was the last bulwark in the losing battle against relentless forces of change which have already swept away the Latin Mass. the confessional booth and an unending supply of black-habited nuns to impart the faith to children.

In the most impassioned speech of the day, which the chairman twice tried in vain to cut short. John Cardinal Carbury of St. Louis assailed communion in the hand for its dangers of "irreverence, profanation, and devil worship." He said he had received 1,000 letters from Catholics supporting his widely published crusade against the change. He quoted from one woman who he said complained that "'everything (in the church) is done to please the intellectual elites who no longer practice the true faith.'"

The bishops also adopted two policy statements on social questions. One called on teh United States to pursue more vigorously the defense of human rights in general and religious freedom in particular in Eastern European countries as provided by the Helsinki agreement.

The other urged a more realistic approach to problems of American Indians.