U.S. Roman Catholic bishops yesterday backed American Jewish leaders in their demand for a meeting with Pope John Paul II about his decision to receive Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on Thursday at the Vatican.

Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement released at church headquarters here that while he cannot speak for the Vatican, "I see the wisdom of considering further dialogue at some appropriate level with a representative international Jewish agency . . . .

"I am aware of the sensitivity of this and related issues for the Jewish community in the United States and throughout the world," he said.

The Vatican's decision last week to receive Waldheim, who has been accused of Nazi war crimes, outraged the Jewish community worldwide.

Leaders of the major U.S. Jewish organizations have threatened to boycott a planned ceremonial meeting with the pope during his U.S. tour in September. They asked to meet with him beforehand to discuss Catholic-Jewish tensions, including the Waldheim incident.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee called May's support "a testimony to the friendship that many Jewish

leaders have with Archbishop May and the respect we have for one another."

Tanenbaum said Jewish leaders have agreed to "suspend judgment" until after the pope receives Waldheim Thursday, in hopes that the pontiff will use the occasion to condemn Waldheim's actions.

But he said he has contacted the Vatican Embassy here about a substantive meeting and is preparing a letter on behalf of the Jewish organizations spelling out some of the key issues they want to discuss.

May noted that the pontiff's meeting with Waldheim was arranged at Waldheim's request and "does not mean that the Holy See is making a statement on the personal character of the one being received."

He added that he hopes the "good relations" between Jews and the U.S. Catholic hierarchy "will be strong enough to overcome any specific difficulty of the

moment."