Both the timing and the message of the Roman Catholic bishops' first draft statement on economic justice are filled with ironies.

The bishops speak after a presidential election in which the Democratic candidate moved to the right on economic policy questions, the Republican president espoused even more of a laissez-faire governmental approach to alleviating poverty, the dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest doctrine of social Darwinism appeared enshrined in the White House, and the divisive debate about religion in politics centered largely on such single issues as abortion and school prayer that worked against the interests of the Democrats' Catholic vice-presidential candidate. And all this at a time when the country was said to be in the most conservative political mood in a lifetime.

Yet the bishops issue an old-fashioned document ringing with moral indignation about economic injustice, poverty, racism, man's inhumanity to man, and the need for government to do dramatically more to address these conditions. Had the bishops spoken out earlier, greater attention might have been paid to all of these issues during the presidential campaign. They could have affected the nature of the debate about America's political and economic choices.

No wonder the timing of the release produced private and public expressions of cynicism.

"It's coming out when the game is over and the fans have left the field and a few beer cans are still lying around," Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) was quoted as saying. Proxmire, according to Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post, added that politics "is the name of the game. There's no other way to do things in this country than to get a president and Congress that support these goals. Maybe they think they can do it through an act of faith."

The bishops speak exactly 20 years after the most liberal of presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, was capitalizing on having won the greatest percentage of presidential votes in American history by swiftly moving to declare "unconditional war on poverty" and setting the nation on the path to building what he called a "Great Society," the final flowering of the unfulfilled promises of the New Deal and modern welfare state.

Now, a generation and another presidential landslide later, the dismantling and discrediting of that political social welfare approach proceeds with renewed vigor at the White House under the most conservative president, Ronald Reagan.

Today, the national debate concerns not whether more public treasure should be expended on those governmental efforts. It's about how to cut such spending faster and deeper.

Yet here are the bishops calling for a new national policy commitment to achieve full employment, for increased governmental support "for direct job-creation programs targeted on the structurally unemployed," for more "direct public-service employment and also . . . public subsidies for employment in the private sector."

They are speaking out strongly about the level of inequality and wealth in America and branding it "morally unacceptable." Amid the current tone of celebrating America's success and its winners in the "opportunity society," they are describing failures of U.S. society, "some of them massive and ugly."

Their document comes at a time of increasing racial and religious polarization in the country and when the forces of the so-called new religious right of Protestant fundamentalists are on the rise. Already the reaction to their preliminary draft has been harsh.

The leader of the self-described "Moral Majority," the Rev. Jerry Falwell, immediately attacked the Catholic bishops for having endorsed socialism. "While the bishops don't advocate redistributing the nation's wealth," Falwell says, "they come close to it, and that's socialism, which isn't any more than shared poverty." Others on the political right assail the bishops for attacking capitalism, for naivete, for liberal bias, for seeking to reinstitute the policies of the New Deal.

Along with such criticism are whispers from a recurring American refrain: what business does the Roman Catholic Church have intruding on these matters of state? It's an old question, and one that has been addressed many times in decades past. A memorable example involved the time when Budd Schulberg, the novelist and screenwriter, first met the Rev. John M. Corridan, a Jesuit priest assisting oppressed longshoremen in their battle to achieve economic and social justice on the corrupt New York waterfront.

"I was approaching the phenomenon of waterfront priests with a certain blindness," Schulberg later explained. "You might even call it prejudice. With prejudice as with burns, there are different degrees. There are the overt, running sores of prejudice, there are others just below the skin and there are some so deeply and so long buried that the carrier had lost all conscious memory of them.

"I think I may have carried the latent or 'benign' type of prejudice. I examine myself on this point only because I suspect there are millions of non-Catholics like myself, people who believe themselves to be splendidly tolerant fellows who favor everyone's right to worship as he chooses. And yet there is this creeping doubt whispering in us, 'What's a Catholic priest doing on the waterfront, butting into the union and political problems of longshoremen? Is this a rendering to God of the things that are Caesar's? Isn't there always the danger of religous demagoguery such as clouded the career of Father Coughlin?' "

Schulberg's doubts quickly quickly dissipated. As he said:

"Father Corridan's words cut a way for me through the curtain of religious prejudice into the world of Catholic humanism -- of Christian social ethics. There I began to sense what a powerful force for social betterment this religious tradition can be."

And still is.

The real significance of the bishops' call for economic justice is not that it came too late in a political campaign. Nor is it that the bishops are mixing God and man's business, abriding proper boundaries of church and state or allowing themselves to be duped by stale, unworkable doctrines of socialism or liberalism. Long before the political "isms" -- communism, socialism, fascism -- began to plague this century, the principles they have again restated formed the heart of Catholic and Christian doctrine: justice, compassion and mercy.

By raising the standard again, they ensure at least one thing: the debate over achieving those ancient goals will continue.