The nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday to continue work on their proposed pastoral letter condemning nuclear war, and one of their leaders interpreted the vote as "a kind of general endorsement" of the sensitive document, which the administration has fought for months to soften.
The bishops also released a committee statement which seemed a rebuke to the administration on the domestic front, calling "on our nation's leaders to reject current policies which attempt to solve America's economic ills at the expense of the poor and the unemployed."
The statement says, "We in the church have seen the lengthening lines of people at church-sponsored programs for the poor . . . . We have seen these lines grow longer in recent months as a result of a failing economy and deep cuts by the public sector at several levels in social programs for the poor."
Warning that "charity is not enough," it calls on "America's decision makers to work aggressively for public policies based on full employment and economic justice."
"The renewed prosperity and security that we seek as a nation must not be purchased at the expense of the poor," said the statement, which came from a committee headed by Bishop Mark J. Hurley of Santa Rosa (Calif.) "Our economic ills must not be cured at the expense of unemployed."
The long and detailed nuclear warfare statement took so much time that there was no time left to debate the economic statement, which Hurley said was nonpartisan. It was released, therefore, in the name of the committee only.
Thirty-one bishops, on the final day of their meeting here, proposed refinements that they argued would strengthen the nuclear pastoral. While some were extremely critical of one section or another, none challenged two of the proposed pastoral's main theses: that the use of nuclear weapons against population centers or in a first strike would be immoral.
White House national security adviser William P. Clark, writing on behalf of President Reagan, sent the bishops a seven-page letter earlier this week, urging them especially to recosider their position on the doctrine of deterrence and to give more recognition to the administration's efforts at arms control.
Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in summing up the bishops' two-hour critique of the pastoral that he "could not specify an instance" in which any of the bishops who spoke appeared to have been influenced by the Clark letter.
The vote to continue work on the document came on a show of hands. Reporters counted no more than six negative votes.
Roach said he interpreted the nearly unanimous vote in favor of a special meeting in Chicago next May to refine the nuclear document as "a kind of general endorsement of the direction that the pastoral has taken."
Yesterday's comments ranged widely over the document's sections on theology, scripture, church history and tradition, as well as political and military affairs. Most began with expressions of overall support.
Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco said the pastoral has already accomplished one of the bishops' goals. "Even if we never come to a third and final document draft , it has raised the moral issue in the midst of the public debate," he said.
The section on nuclear deterrence -- termed "morally permissible" only when accompanied by arms reduction efforts -- drew much of the comment. Some wanted it toughened, some softened.
"The deterrence doctrine has justified the arms race" and "has given us a balance of terror," said Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, one of the most outspoken peace bishops. "No one can prove or disprove that deterence has prevented nuclear war. There have been 137 wars in the past seven years, and the world is an armed camp."
In general, he said he approved the document. "To paraphrase a famous American, I hope our committee is going to stay the course of peace."
Bishop Joseph McNicholas of Springfield, Ill., on the other hand, wanted the statement to "do a little bit of flag waving, be patriotic," in contrasting U.S. freedom with the oppression of communist regimes. "Why are we afraid to say . . . that we love this country even when we have to criticize its military policy?"