"The Church," Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago said during the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting in Washington last month, "does not engage in partisan politics or endorse candidates for public office." But much on the bishops' agenda during that November meeting and during the last few years could make for lively partisan politics if the Democratic Party dared to adopt any of it.

For instance, the second draft of the Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the Economy -- warmly received by most of the bishops -- says flat out that "economic rights are as essential to human dignity as are the civil and political freedoms granted pride of place in the Bill of Rights." These include the "rights to life, food, clothing, shelter . . . and medical care." Furthermore, if the bishops were in charge, the poor and the powerless would have privileged claims on society. Not only do such worldly wise Catholic laymen as William Simon and Michael Novak balk at such talk. So do Paul Kirk and the rest of the present Democratic Party leadership.

In the course of floor discussion of the pastoral letter, Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Pittsburgh rose to say that he knew very well how punishing the economy is to the many unemployed in his area; but still he wished the letter on the economy could be more upbeat in tone, reminding one and all that the American economic system is the best in the world.

Softly, firmly, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, chairman of the committee writing that pastoral letter, answered that the United States may actually be the worst, not the best of the developed nations with regard to broad distribution of wealth. Indeed, the bishop added, one Brazilian economist concludes that class distinctions in American cities amount to "economic apartheid." The tone of the letter would not be changed.

Also in that letter -- and no bishop dissented -- is the assertion that "no one may deny the right to organize for purposes of collective bargaining without attacking human dignity itself." As for givebacks, the bishops say that "it is unfair to expect unions to make concessions if managers and shareholders do not make at least equal sacrifices."

This is a resoundingly different attitude from that of one of the more renowned princes of the church of another period, the late Cardinal Francis Spellman. In 1949, outraged by the gall of the archdiocese's miserably paid gravediggers when they went out on strike, Spellman, in order to break the strike, broke cemetery ground himself with a shovel. He lost no status among the other bishops at the time.

By contrast, the current spiritual leader of New York's Catholics, Cardinal John O'Connor, was faced with a hospital strike some months ago, and in his office I heard him say to the official in charge of running the Catholic hospitals, "Over my dead body are any scabs to be hired or is anybody to be fired for exercising the right to collective bargaining."

The bishops, in addition, have been considerably more consistent critics of the administration's Central American policies than even liberal Democrats, who

are now trying so hard to look "responsible." As for the nuclear question, the bishops two years ago in their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace called for "immediate, bilateral, verifiable agreements to halt the testing, production, and deployment of new nuclear weapons systems."

Not limit. Halt. Will the 1988 Democratic platform be so bold as to say anywhere near as much? Moreover, some currently restive bishops want their colleagues to declare that the whole concept of deterrence is immoral, and that is being studied.

The bishops are not entirely without their own internal problems in the world. The most serious -- though many of the bishops do not seem to realize how serious -- is the acute discontent of many women in the church. A group of them demonstrated in front of the Capital Hilton on the morning the bishops' conference began. They protested, among other discrimination, that "the processes of hierarchical decision-making are closed to women." No women sat with the bishops inside. According to Vatican official Cardinal Jean Jerome Hamer, no woman can become a priest because Christ was a man.

Even so liberal a prelate as Cardinal Bernardin seems immobilized on the question of discrimination against women. In November, he was able to persuade his colleagues to connect abortion to such other pro-life issues as nuclear war, capital punishment, poverty, euthanasia and racism. But he admitted in an interview that he prohibits girl altar servers in his archdiocese. It's something, he said, that "has to be looked at and resolved one of these days."