While America's Catholic bishops are to be commended for sponsoring a year-long debate about the U.S. political economy, the first draft of their new pastoral letter on the subject is to be faulted for proposing to reshape the American polity by granting to the state new vast and sweeping powers.

What would the United States look like tomorrow if the proposals of this first draft were carried out immediately? The federal government would have new and sweeping powers to:

* Assign wages by "comparable reward" for "comparable contributions";

* Raise the minimum wage until it rises above a poverty-level income (just over $5 an hour, $10,280 a year for a family of four);

* Set a limit on personal income;

* Set a limit on personal or family wealth;

* Set welfare standards by federal, not state or local, law.

On matters of moral principle, the first draft is on the whole traditional. Even here, though, it is at times tendentious (endorsing without criticism, for example, United Nations "economic rights.") In its more specific comments, however (comments that taken together often read more like the platform of a political party than like a moral statement), it shows a secular intellectual framework dominated by a partisan point of view. In such respects, it is backward-looking.

Several times, the new draft says that Catholic social thought is, in principle, anti-statist, and that statism itself is dangerous. This is true. But then this draft goes on to show itself, in practice, unabashedly statist.

It contains a section on Scripture that reads as if it were a proof-text, searching Scripture, for instance, to justify the current slogan, a "preferential option for the poor." In doing so, it vastly oversimplifies the changing meanings of poverty down through the ages, and the meaning of "the poor" in the Bible.

The first draft, furthermore, fails to give due thanks for the "new world" invented by our Protestant forebears: its originality in establishing basic human rights and its genius in launching the most original experiment in economic growth in history. What would the United States look like today if it had been founded solely on the principles of Catholic social thought circa 1776? El Salvador? Brazil? The American experiment deserves much closer and more sympathetic study by Catholics.

The bishops, in this draft, seem to want to lead the way to a new political consensus in the land. But isn't that properly the role of such political leaders as Mario Cuomo, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, Gary Hart, Jack Kemp and others? The bishops are moral, not political, leaders.

The draft employs without criticism or clarification, the slogans and ideas of European socialists: Olaf Palme's "economic democracy," the U.N.'s "economic rights." Do the bishops endorse the programs implicit in these slogans?

Finally, the first draft does not fully reflect the gratitude American Catholics have appropriately felt for the privilege of participating in this most original of all the world's experiments in political economy. Without this American experiment, Catholic social thought might never have learned the ways of religious liberties, individual human rights, the liberty of the press, the right to association in labor unions, the road to far more than "the living wage" (once thought of as barely above subsistence), and the institutions that produce economic dynamism, development and creative invention.

The tone of this draft is often whiney and ungenerous, as the political left is wont to be. It finds poverty in the United States a moral scandal, not a failure of elitist social engineering or a result of rampant inflation, which raised poverty levels sky-high. It finds America's amazing feat of having created 27 million new civilian jobs since 1970 (while West Europeans were losing 2 million jobs) morally unacceptable. It finds America's open and free distribution of income and wealth morally unacceptable (compared with that of the other 165 nations today?). It finds the American people's attitudes toward the poor "punitive." Like the Democrats in San Francisco, it always blames the American people first.

On the other hand, the bishops plainly wish to be seen not only as democrats but as capitalists. They praise tax incentives, small business, multinational corporations, enterprise, entrepreneurship, savings, investment. In some ways, the draft is more pro-capitalist than any previous church document.

In fact, the large lines of the first draft's solutions to poverty, unemployment, international trade and social forethought are roughly similar to those of a lay letter, "Toward the Future," produced by James Q. Wilson, Norman Ture, William Simon and others (including myself). Like the more than two dozen people who produced this document, the bishops want fundamental reforms of the welfare system. They urge a creative and dynamic economy as the first and most important step in ending unemployment, and they favor U.S. markets open to the products of the Third World.

But the lay letter sticks to principles: principles of Catholic social thought and principles embodied in the American political economy. It avoids political specifics, on which Catholics (properly) disagree. Thus, implicitly, the lay letter reaches out to and justifies both the Democratic and Republican parties, since each represents a legitimate emphasis on the two-sided reality of political economy -- the one putting more emphasis on the polity, the other more emphasis on the economy.

By contrast, the bishops go far beyond moral principles. The intellectual framework they select for describing U.S. reality is partisan; to many of us, it seems tendentious to use Catholic social thought to support only one such temporal framework. Many of the first draft's specific recommendations are even more partisan. There is already evidence that many Democrats, as well as Republicans and independents, find the bishops' first draft unnecessarily one-sided.

When the bishops went through the process of producing their letter on nuclear policy, they eventually came up with a third draft that was a great improvement over the first one. By inviting an open discussion of this new pastoral letter, they have, fortunately, ensured that this first draft, too, will be winnowed, pruned, clarified, and extensively rewritten. Their final product will probably conform more closely to the principles of Catholic social thought, to American ideals, and to secular reality.