Roman Catholic bishops yesterday enthusiastically embraced the central themes of a draft pastoral letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the Economy that calls for a greater transfer of wealth to the poor.

Since its release Sunday, the document has generated widespread national interest, but yesterday's session was the first formal opportunity for the bishops to express their views.

During the 90-minute session allotted for presentation and discussion of the document at the bishops' annual meeting here, more than a dozen bishops praised it and offered suggestions for strengthening it.

Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey called the 112-page draft a "strong, sophisticated statement" based on "the teaching of the church, rather than some political preference or political theory." He said it provided the foundation for developing an "authentic" philosophy for adapting the liberation theology of Latin American Catholics to the North American scene.

Liberation theology holds that Christians have an obligation to liberate the poor from oppression, whether economic or political.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago praised the draft pastoral letter, saying it holds the "same potential" for the church and society as the pastoral letter condemning nuclear warfare, which he shepherded to completion last year.

A common theme of the bishops commenting on the economics pastoral was the need to apply its precepts on economic justice to the church itself.

"It is the church's duty to practice what it preaches," said Bishop William E. McManus of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. He proposed that the next draft of the pastoral letter, expected early next spring, should include "documentation of how the church measures up to its own standards."

Without such self-analysis, "we run the risk of its being written off as platitudes," McManus said.

New York Archbishop John J. O'Connor said the bishops "should be prepared for what I personally welcome, an almost immediate scrutiny of the degree of economic justice we extend to our own church employes."

O'Connor said that he had discussed the pastoral's "general thrust" with "some 300 members of the New York Stock Exchange" who are aiding the annual Catholic Charities appeal in New York, and that he plans to study the draft "carefully and prayerfully" with them.

Bernardin said he had similar plans for careful study of the first draft with a "blue-ribbon committee" of the Chicago archdiocese, set up more than two years ago to unsnarl the tangled finances of the late Cardinal John P. Cody and to continue to advise the church on financial matters in Chicago.

In other action, the bishops declined to move from what Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis described as "a wimp position" on the Equal Rights Amendment unless and until a qualifier is adopted specifying that the ERA does not entail support for abortion.

The bishops, as a national body, have declined to support the ERA without some assurance that the amendment, which was approved by Congress in 1972 but failed to secure ratification in state legislatures, would not be construed in the courts as supporting abortion rights.

May, who headed a special committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to restudy the matter in anticipation of the ERA being reintroduced in Congress, acknowledged that the bishops "have been criticized for taking a wimp position, and there's something to that." But in the light of continuing ambiguity over the abortion question, the committee advised against changing position on the issue.

Several bishops argued in favor of trying to modify their position without compromising their antiabortion stance. "I think we can find some way of putting ourselves in the position of being supportive" of the equal rights push, said Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis, immediate past president of the bishops' conference.

But Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh, a legal expert, noted that the question was "filled with land mines."

In Bernardin's first report as chairman of the conference's Pro-Life Committee, he said that committee "is committed to a vision which sees human life as a precious gift from God to be defended and promoted at every stage of its development, from conception until natural death."