The head of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops yesterday pledged continuing efforts by the church to influence national policy on such issues as nuclear arms, abortion and human rights as well as economic justice, the topic of the bishops' pastoral letter released in draft form last weekend.

In his presidential address opening the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here, Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, said that "on any of these four issues, silence on our part would approximate dereliction of pastoral duty and civic irresponsibility."

Malone welcomed the emergence of "the religious issue" during the election campaign and expressed the hope that "with the election behind us it will be possible for the nation to address the public role of religion in a more systematic way."

Indirectly, Malone warned against limiting the church's political role to opposition to abortion, on which several bishops spoke out forcefully during the presidential campaign. The abortion issue left some bishops embroiled with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, a Catholic.

Malone urged against "a single-issue strategy" on grounds that "only by addressing a broad spectrum of issues can we do justice to the moral tradition we possess as a church and thereby demonstrate the moral challenge we face as a nation."

In his first presidential address, Malone spoke almost exclusively of social issues and the church's responsibility to work to influence public policy. He touched only briefly on the proposed pastoral letter on the economy.

The first draft of that document, calling for a "new commitment to economic justice" and a national concern with problems of the poor, was kept under wraps until after the election.

In their four-day meeting here, the bishops have scheduled brief discussion of the document, which is expected to undergo extensive revisions before final debate at next year's annual meeting.

The more than 300 United States bishops also heard yesterday from the Vatican's official representative in this country, Archbishop Pio Laghi.

Commenting on the controversial upgrading of diplomtic relations between the United States and the Vatican earlier this year, Laghi said relations had always been friendly.

"Now, however, we have moved from a 'friendly' relationship to a relationship between friends. Your government and the Holy See cannot only give and receive information but engage in dialogue," he said.

Laghi indirectly addressed fears expressed by some that the U.S. government might attempt to use the new ties to exert undue influence on the Roman Catholic Church in this country -- in hopes the Vatican might pressure American bishops to modify their antinuclear stand adopted in a pastoral letter last year, for instance.

"In no way and at no time does the representative of the Holy See, in this dialogue with the public authorities, take less than full account of the views, concerns and policies of the bishops," Laghi said.

In business sessions, the bishops agreed to place on the agenda for today's sessions consideration of a new version of the Psalms, revised to eliminate exclusively masculine references.

The older, conventional version of the Grail Psalter, published in Great Britain, has been widely used by Catholics here in private devotions and public worship. Unlike some attempts at non-sexist Scripture, the new edition of the Psalter does not tamper with traditional male references to God. However, it does substitute generic nouns and pronouns for masculine ones at many points.

Also on liturgical matters, Malone read the bishops a message from the Vatican acceding to a 1978 request of the American bishops to permit distribution of both bread and wine at holy communion at Sunday masses, if the bishop of the diocese judges this can be done "in an orderly and reverent way."

The Vatican ruling, which was applauded by the bishops here, in effect puts the official stamp of approval on a practice that was widespread even before the 1978 request by the bishops.

Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of Cracow, Poland, expressed thanks of the Polish church for the aid and expressions of solidarity from the Catholic Church in this country.

"External, technical, social and economic conditions become more favorable for the church and the [Polish] nation when Poland as a state is not isolated from other countries, from the entire community of the world," he said.

Both church and society in Poland, he said "are not merely waiting for 'better times' in order to live and create but we do this when it seems to an outsider that this is not possible at all . . . . We cite the example of Father Jerzy Popieluszko," who was kidnaped and murdered last month.