When the White House Conference on Families was canceled last week - ostensibly postponed from 1979 to 1981, but perhaps doomed forever - attention focused on whether a "white Catholic male from an intact family" had to be named the conference codirector to offset the fact that the director was a divorced black woman.

But the collapse of the conference, first proposed by President Carter in a 1976 campaign speech to the National Conference of Catholic Charities, actually resulted from far deeper causes, which the "white Catholic male" dispute merely mirrored.

The fight over a director reflected fierce rivalry among racial and social groups for control of the conference mechanism, since whoever controls the directorship and the top positions usually controls the ultimate findings and recommendations. There was a "Catholic candidate" for the directorship and several "black candidates" for the directorship, with wrestling back and forth for months over who would get the plum.

But the second major reason the conference collapsed was growing realization at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and elsewhere that a conference on the family held a half year before the 1980 presidential election might well end up dealing with some explosive and embarrassing issues - such as the rights of homosexuals, abortion, demands for enormously greater public support for social programs - a situation possibly not contemplated by President Carter when he first proposed the conference.

"It was a potential land mine," said Ralph Perotta, of the Italian-American Foundation. Perrotta was deeply involved in early planning efforts and at one point was suggested for deputy director.

"The fuss over the directorship shows that problems. We were already at each other's throats."

HEW recognized these potential problems and knew it was to pickleaders who could get things under control and hold things together, to "manage" the conference. HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. thought he had found the perfect man in Wilbur J. Cohen, himself a former HEW secretary and one of the most respected social welfare experts in the country. Cohen was named chairman of the conference April 14 by the White House.

But when discovered he had to undergo treatment for a serious thyroid condition, and Califano aide Patrici*a Fleming resigned as executive director amid reports Califano had demanded she accept a white Catholic married male as codirector to mollify Catholic unhappiness with the fact that she is a divorcee, Califano postponed the conference until 1981. Many believe it will never take place, but instead may be merged with the 1981 White House Conference on Children and Youth.

The roots of the fiasco go back to September 1976, when candidate Carter pledged that he would hold a White House family conference if elected - a conference desired by Catholic social welfare leaders, and urged on Carter by Califano.

The idea initially went on the back bureau, but eventually small task forces were named to start conference planning, with HEW as the lead agency.

Five persons finally emerged as the leading candidates for the critical fulltime job of executive director and it was then that the infighting began.

Califano at first, according to two knowledgeable sources, didn't want a Catholic as executive director because he himself is a Catholic. "It would look like the Pope's son moving in here," one official said he was told by some Califano aides.

The five who became the leading candidates were:

Noel Myricks, a black professor of law at Maryland, who had the support of a coalition of black social worker and Social Service groups.

Leon Chestang, professor of social work at the University of Chicago, reportedly favored by the National Association of Social Workers.

Francis Butler, director of social policy for the U.S. Catholic Conference who favored strongly but informally by Catholic groups.

Kinsey Green, director of the American Home Economic Association.

Jeffalyn Johnson, a black services consultant here.

The various interest groups couldn't get together on any candidate, but eventually the list narrowed down to Butler, Myricks and Chestang, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

During this impasse, Califano began casting about for a chairman. When he settled on Cohen, the choice of executive director became less crucial and Califano decided to name staff aide Fleming, a black, who hadn't been considered or proposed earlier. Most of the groups with their own candidates were unenthusiastic.

According to numerous sources, Califano then decide that Butler, the favorite of the Catholic contingent, would be a good counterbalancing choice as deputy director, especially as he had had experience running a major conference for the church earlier.

Butler, however, didn't want to be deputy. But during the course of a conversation with Califano this spring, Butler said, he told Califano that "I'd accept a codirector arrangement." Butler than discussed that possibility at Califano's request with Fleming and Peter Bell, another Califano aide, but on April 10 was told by Bell that "Patsy turned the idea down."

It was then that the final countdown to last week's tragic-comic outcome began. HEW, according to Perrotta, cast about for an alternative to Butler and at one point even offered Perrotta the job as deputy.

Meanwhile, according to one knowledgeable source, Califano kept reviving with Fleming the idea of taking Butler as codirector. At the same time the news of Fleming's appointment - which never was officially announced - circulated to Catholic circles, and the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic preist who writes a syndicated newspaper column, publicly declared it would be inappropriate for a divorced woman to head a conference on the family.

A White House official said there was heavy mail from Catholics protesting Fleming, and similar mail also went to HEW. Some Catholic social worker groups protested to HEW.

Around the end of May or start of June, according to several sources, Califano again pressed Fleming to choose a codirector. He denies, as has been reported, that he instructed her to choose a "white Catholic male," from an "intact" family or that he specifically told her she must take Butler, who is, as Butler unblushingly admits, a 'white Catholic male from an intact family." But whatever was said to her, according to one knowledgeable source, "she must have assumed he was talking about Butler because Butler was the only name ever mentioned for codirector."

At that point, Fleming stepped aside as director.

At that point, it also was becoming clear that the conference, scheduled for December 1979, had the potential to become highly explosive.

The last straw was Cohen's illness which requires him to take thyroxine treatments and "sometimes makes me feel awful," Cohen says. He had to step down. Fleming had resigned. The various interest groups were miffed at the rejection of their candidates. Califano, perhaps with a sign of relief, called the whole thing off until 1981.

That still leaves HEW as the lead agency on 14 White House conferences scheduled for the next few years.