Presidents of the 235 U.S. Roman Catholic colleges and universities have joined to combat a Vatican proposal that some say would destroy their schools' hard-won recognition in the American academic community and may force many into bankruptcy.

At issue is a schema, or proposed draft, of a document governing Catholic higher education worldwide.

It places evangelism, "spreading the message of Christ in the world of culture," on a par with "seeking and disseminating truth" as the objectives of a Catholic college or university. The university, according to the document, should be a "place for the carrying out of the salvific mission of the church."

The proposal would put such institutions under control of local bishops given "the duty and the right of seeing to it that . . . the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed."

The bishop could declare a school "no longer Catholic" if "the Catholic character . . . continues to be compromised in a serious way." Faculty members are to be chosen for their "doctrinal integrity and uprightness of life" as much as for academic qualification, according to the proposal, which adds, "Teachers who lack these requirements are to be dismissed."

The Rev. William McInnes, president of the National Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said, "If this went through in its present form, it would undo two centuries of struggle of Catholic education in this country."

Catholic colleges, he said, have "worked against heavy odds to prove ourselves academically. If this went through, we would be discredited in the eyes of the university world . . . . It would reverse so many things that we've built up so carefully."

The Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, headed by Cardinal William W. Baum, former archbishop of Washington, began circulating the draft last year to Catholic educators around the world, seeking comment.

In a 12-page critique sent to Rome last month, presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities expressed strong dissent.

The critique, a compilation of the presidents' responses, said the proposal for church control of colleges is totally at odds with the standards of U.S. academic accrediting associations, which require that full control be vested in the schools' governing boards.

Several court tests have made it "clear that the favorable decisions regarding public aid to Catholic colleges or universities are founded by a perception by the court that the church does not control them," the presidents said.

Loss of accreditation would deprive students of federal and state tuition loans and the institutions of state and federal grants totaling more than $500 million a year, the presidents said. "Few, if any, of the 235 Catholic colleges and universities could long survive in such circumstances."

The critique faulted the proposal for portraying the university "as a kind of seminary, a place for 'formation,' a comfortable home where 'the truth' already exists . . .where the relationship between science and faith is presented as a 'problem' rather than as a dynamic interaction which helps to move the human race forward."

The presidents sharply rejected Vatican guidelines on faculty hiring. "There is no way within the statutes of our universities that teachers or administrators who lack something as vague as 'doctrinal integrity and uprightness of life' could be dismissed," they said.

In addition, McInnes said, such requirements raise the specter of "expensive and exhaustive litigation."

A proposed requirement that theology faculty members have a special clearance or "mandate" from "the competent ecclesiastical authority" drew particular fire from the presidents. They said it would lead to "assertion of power by bishops to control theologians and to assure 'orthodoxy' in their teaching . . . .

"What is proposed here is contrary to the American values of both academic freedom and due process, both of which are written into most university statutes and protected by civil and constitutional law."

The Vatican's challenge to the Rev. Charles E. Curran of Catholic University over his right to dissent from noninfallible teaching hinges on this issue. Catholic University theology teachers have such a "mandate," since it is a Vatican-chartered institution, the only one in the nation. The new proposal would extend such control to every Catholic theology department.