A coalition of prominent North American Roman Catholic activists has launched a plan to challenge the centuries-old policy of secrecy surrounding the election of the pope and to make the selection of pontiffs more responsive to the interests of church members.

The key ingredient of the plan, according to leaders of the newly formed Committee for the Responsible Election of the Pope, is a barrage of information on likely candidates for the past - with data ranging from authorized biographies of the princes of the church to candid observations on their life styles to Vatican gossip.

Traditionally, the pope is elected by the College of of Cardinals, meeting in secret conclave. Rules laid down in 1975 by Pope Paul VI for the selection of his successor assure that the forth-coming conclave will be one of the most secretive.

At a press conference here yesterday, James F. Andrews, cochairman of the new committee and head of a publishing house, explained that the group plans "to distribute information about the papabili" - the Italian term for churchmen considered likely papal candidates - to secular media and church leaders.

The committee's opening salvo is a 296-page book, "The Inner Elite: Dossiers of Papal Candidates," by Gary MacEoin.It contains candid and not always flattering biographies of all 117 members of the College of Cardinals entitled to participate in a papal election.

The committee also is publishing a monthly newsletter than is a mix of high-level ecclesiastical gossip and the kind of inner-circle speculation that churchmen have increasingly indulged in recent years - namely, who will succeed the aging and frail Pope Paul?

An item is the first newsletter, for example, notes that Pericle Cardinal Felici has a "passion for the latest audio-visual gadgets. With a telescopic lens, he follows the movements of Paul VI in the apostolic palace, which is opposite Felici's apartment. When Felici is near Paul in televised ceremonies in St. Peter's Square, he [records] the historical scenes in his apartment for replay on his return."

The newsletter suggests that Felici's activities may be responsible for Paul's strong measure against possible electronic surveillance in future conclaves.

The newsletter and MacEoin's book are published by Sheed. Andrews and McMeel, of which Andrews is chairman of the board. Most of the 27 persons on the committee are involved in publishing or journalism.

Andrews stressed the committee's conviction that dissemination of information about possible papal candidates would influence the decisions of the College of Cardinals. "We feed information is powerful," he said.

MacEoin pointed out that in addition to seeking to influence the selection of Paul's successor, the committee has a longer-term goal:

"We are calling for the improvement of the system," he said, adding that the committee favored including the heads of national conferences of bishops, such as American Archbishop John Quinn, in future papal elections.

Such changes, he said, "could take 100 to 150 years" to accomplish. But if they're not started, they are not going to happen."

In a foreword to MacEoin's book, Andrews noted that the volume was an outgrowth of a project undertaken two years ago in which "key cardinals" were interviewed about the reign of Pope Paul and their peers in the College of Cardinals.

The results, he said, showed that the cardinals' knowledge of one other was "social and superficial . . . More alarming was the fact that a cardinal's perception of another cardinal seldom matched the views of the men and women who lived in the prelate's domain and had an opportunity to view the man closely over a period of years. We were incredulous over the lack of basis information available to the world community about this inner elite."