THAT WAS a strong statement the nation's Roman Catholic bishops issued on El Salvador the other day, and an odd one. The strong thing about the statement was the terms of its recommendations to the American government: cut off military aid, promote a "broad-based political solution" flowing from "valid" elections. The odd thing was that the statement was inconsistent with the position of most of the El Salvadoran Catholic hierarchy, which had, furthermore, sent representatives to Washington precisely to make its views known to the American bishops at their annual meeting here.

Bishop Pedro Aparicio is the current vice president of the five-bishop Salvadoran conference. With conference secretary Monsignor Freddy Delgado, he was here under a formal mandate to represent his peers. He is from San Vincente, a town on the front line, he has his own tales of personal danger, and he has thousands of refugees in his care. The bishop wants American military aid to his country's junta cut off, but only if arms to the guerrillas are cut off. He supports the junta's plans for elections next year. Some in the American church dismiss the bishop as a part of the oligarchy. We don't know about that, but in any event, he would seem to be a timely and authentic witness whom any group of American bishops addressing El Salvador would leap to consult.

This is not what happened this past week in Washington. Bishop Aparicio was given only brief attention and that by only a handful of American bishops. Some felt he was not adequately respectful of church protocol. The word was put out, correctly, that his sponsor was an organization of conservatives, the Central American Working Group. Announcing that "we feel a special tie to our brother bishops and to the Church in Central America," the American churchmen gave this brother bishop the cold shoulder. As a local authority, they cited the odd man out in the El Salvadoran hierarchy, Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, instead.

The spectacle of bishop-shopping is not especially edifying. To the extent that the American bishops overlook the real differences within El Salvador, they may be deepening them. To the extent that they suggest to the American public that they have comprehended the whole spectrum of political reality in El Salvador, they are perpetrating a certain fraud. The conference endorsed an essentially one- sided position that needs to be labeled such.