The nation's Roman Catholic bishops completed their review of the first draft of their pastoral letter on the economy, making a long list of suggestions, sometimes contradictory, to the committee expected to produce the second draft by late September.

After three sessions of going over the 60,000-word document in small round-table groups, the general consensus seemed to be, as Bishop Michael J. Murphy of Buffalo put it, "Right on. Tighten it up, but don't back off."

The first draft has generated widespread comment, both pro and con, since its release last November. It seeks to apply biblical precepts and traditional Catholic social teaching to a detailed analysis of American economic life.

One of the concerns often expressed by the bishops to the drafting committee was that the tone of the final document reflect their role as moral teachers, not economic technicians with ready answers for every problem, said Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, chairman of the drafting committee.

But the bishops said they want enough specifics in the document to give it relevance.

Weakland said "a substantial portion" of the bishops here want to retain the letter's emphasis on the "preferential option for the poor," or making concern for the poor the top priority. "We should work toward bridge-building with the middle class," not casting the two groups in adversarial roles, he said.

"The rich feel we are against them the moment we tell the poor to help themselves," said Archbishop Patrick F. Flores of San Antonio. "The moment we tell the poor to help themselves, we are seen as being communists."

Weakland promised that the section on poverty will deal at greater length with the feminization of poverty and the effects of racism on poverty.

Bishops from agricultural states argued eloquently for maintaining or toughening the chapter on food and agriculture.

"We need to rebuild a rural America that has been exploited to the point of death," said Bishop John J. McRaith of Owensboro, Ky. Decrying the trend of corporate farms squeezing out family farmers -- a development criticized in the pastoral -- he said, "We need to be asking the question, 'How small can we be and still be efficient?' instead of 'How big can we get?' "

Meanwhile, Archbishop Peter L. Gerety of Newark spoke about "the plight of our inner cities . . . . We'd like some attention to be given to . . . the large centers of population which have become reservoirs of poverty occupied largely by racial minorities."

Weakland said the third and final draft of the pastoral probably will not be submitted for approval until November 1986.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is a committee working on a potentially more controversial pastoral letter, one dealing with the role of women in church and society.