U.S. Catholic bishops are waging a kind of ecclesiastical states' rights battle with the Vatican over a point of church law that affects how American Catholics receive holy communion.

In November 1978, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to authorize what is called communion under both species, in which worshipers could receive both consecrated bread and wine at communion services instead of just bread, which had been the practice.

Fourteen months later, after many Catholic parishes across the country had made the practice part of their liturgy, the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship notified the U.S. bishops that they had exceeded their authority in implementing the change without Vatican approval.

Ever since, said the Rev. Ronald F. Krisman of the NCCB's liturgy office, "we have been locked in a battle with the Holy See."

It's not exactly a major shooting war, church officials here concede. "Nobody wants to make an issue of it," said Msgr. Daniel Hoye, general secretary of the NCCB.

But the U.S. bishops are holding their ground. "Every time Archbishop John R. Roach president of the American hierarchy goes over to Rome, we send a memorandum," Krisman said. "Our bishops are contending they acted within the law."

The Vatican traditionally keeps tight reins on liturgical practices to keep them uniform throughout the worldwide church. Most modifications approved by a national conference of bishops must be ratified by Rome.

But on this question, the Vatican's own instructions, published at the time the mass was revised in 1969, specifically state, according to Krisman, that "conferences of bishops have the power to decide" to what extent and under what circumstances worshipers may receive both bread and wine at communion.

In light of these instructions, in 1970 the U.S. bishops authorized such communion in certain circumstances before giving it the green light for all masses in 1978.

"There was no hint from Rome" after the 1970 vote "that the decision of the conference had to be confirmed by the Holy See," said Krisman.

The bishops' action in 1978 was assailed by traditionalists, who opposed changes in the sacred rite. But it was also resisted by some Catholics on health grounds, who feared that drinking the communion wine from a common chalice would spread disease.

Opponents protested directly to the Vatican and, according to Krisman, the Sacred Congregation "imprudently began answering directly the complaints of angry conservative Catholics" instead of routing such communications through the Apostolic Delegate, the customary practice.

Parishes in which communion under both species was begun are continuing the practice pending resolution of the conflict, Hoye said, under "the general rule that pastoral peace should not be disturbed."

Krisman said no one has statistics on how widely communion under both kinds is practiced, but said "I would think that in almost all the dioceses where the bishop has authorized it, it is practiced in some parishes." Under church practice, individual bishops have the final say in whether changes are implemented.

Krisman would not speculate whether the Vatican's crackdown in 1980, after no objections to the 1970 action, reflected the more conservative stance of John Paul II, who became pope in 1978. "It's hard to say," he said, but pointed out that the Vatican office involved was headed by the late Cardinal James Knox, known for his conservatism. "We were running into jams with Knox before that time," he said.