LOS ANGELES, SEPT. 16 -- Pope John Paul II today directed U.S. bishops to shepherd dissident American Catholics back to by-the-book Catholicism that could withhold Holy Communion and other sacraments from those who defy church teachings on birth control, divorce and other moral issues.

"It is sometimes claimed that dissent . . . is totally compatible with being 'a good Catholic' and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments," the pope told nearly 300 bishops in a four-hour, closed-door session at Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary here.

"That is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere," he said.

The pope responded specifically and bluntly to four bishops who told him in equally plain language that American Catholics, among the best-educated in the world, are capable of deep faith despite the responsibility they feel to question, criticize and decide for themselves.

"I wish to encourage you in the love of Christ to address this situation courageously in your pastoral ministry, relying on the power of God's truth to attract assent," the pope said. Like his messages to other Catholic groups on this 10-day U.S. tour, his response to the bishops was drafted weeks ago with their reports in hand -- but it answered them more directly.

American Catholics' education, he said, is cause for "rejoicing" and underscores the value of Catholic schooling. But he said Catholics in the United States should be using their knowledge "to bring the Gospel's uplifting and purifying influence to the whole realm of thought and artistic creativity, to the various professions and places of work, to family life and to society in general."

Bishops leaving the meeting described it consistently as warm and positive. "We know there are problems with the church that we have to confront together," Bishop John R. McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said. "He showed he understood that and was encouraging us to make a greater effort."

"I think for anyone to say the pope has done anything to divide the church or turn American Catholics away is a grave mistake," Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York City said. " . . . Do you want him to say that Catholicism isn't Catholicism? That it is really Hottentotism or something? He's simply not going to do that."

The pope reminded the bishops that "theological discussion takes place within the framework of faith. Dissent from church doctrine remains what it is: dissent . . . . It may not be proposed or received on an equal footing with the church's authentic teaching," he said. "Your dialogue {with theologians} will seek to show the inacceptability of dissent and confrontation as a policy and method in church teaching."

It was a point on which the bishops needed no reminding. Last year, the Rev. Charles E. Curran lost his license as a Catholic theologian and his teaching post at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., because of his dissent on matters of sexual ethics. Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle was stripped temporarily of key responsibilities because the Vatican felt he had been lax about church teachings on divorce and homosexuality.

Such controversies have helped give the U.S. church its somewhat rebellious reputation in Rome. Four senior bishops -- Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago and Archbishops Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, John R. Quinn of San Francisco and Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati -- shared the job of telling the pope how his American church looks from here.

"Our realization of the mystery of the church, of course, is situated in the context of our American culture," said Bernardin, former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and one of the church's most influential leaders. "We live in an open society where everyone prizes the freedom to speak his or her mind."

Many American Catholics, he said, "tend to questioning things . . . . They want to know why certain decisions are made, and they feel free to criticize if they do not agree or are not satisfied with the explanations."

He told the pope that with 200 years of independence built into their characters, many Americans "almost instinctively react negatively when they are told that they must do something, even though in their hearts they may know they should do it." Still, most Catholics among them have "a deep faith . . . They contribute to the life of their parish and diocese . . . . They support you."

Bernardin lamented the polarization that results when the church accuses outspoken American Catholics of rejecting their religion and outspoken Catholics accuse their church of "retrogression." Bishops are uncomfortable in adversarial roles in their dioceses or with the Vatican, he said, but such tension "need not be debilitating or destructive."

Besides increased trust "in the risen Christ," Bernardin prescribed fearless candor -- much like today's -- as part of the solution.

Contributing his measure of frankness, Weakland described a well-educated U.S. Catholic laity that is moving "into the upper echelons of society, business and politics." While they remain "very much attached to their church," he said, they are determined to think for themselves in their religious as they do in their secular lives.

"The faithful are more inclined to look at the intrinsic worth of an argument by the teachers in the church than to accept it on the basis of the authority itself," he said. Catholics' desire "to contribute, through their own professional skills, to solving the issues . . . demands a new kind of collaboration and a wider range of consultation on the part of the teaching office of the church," he told the pope.

Collaboration and consultation have increased markedly since the Second Vatican Council redefined the church as "the whole people of God" and encouraged more participation by the laity in parish life. A decline in the number of American priests also has contributed to the responsibilities of the laity, including men who serve as permanent deacons and women who may assist at Mass but cannot be ordained.

"There are no words to explain so much pain on the part of so many competent women today who feel they are second-class citizens in a church they love," Weakland said. "Women do not want to be treated as stereotypes of sexual inferiority, but want to be seen as necessary to the full life of a church that teaches and shows by example the co-discipleship of the sexes as instruments of God's Kingdom."

In his response, the pope said that "all the church's efforts on behalf of women {are} to promote their human dignity . . . equal to that of men's dignity. This dignity must be affirmed . . . even before consideration is given to any of the special and exalted roles fulfilled by women as wives, mothers" or nuns.

But he reiterated the traditional Catholic position that "women are not called to the priesthood. Although the teaching of the church on this point is quite clear, it in no way alters the fact that women are indeed an essential part" of God's plan and the church's life.

"I would think a large number of women in my diocese would be dissatisfied with what he said about ordination," Bishop Edward D. Head of Buffalo, N.Y., said after the meeting, "but that has always been the teaching and it always will be. It is dogma.

"Celibacy, on the other hand, is just a discipline urged by church leaders," Head said. "It could change someday."

Archibishop Pilarczyk, reporting on the priesthood, cited the shrinking population of U.S. priests -- down to about 53,000 from 58,000 10 years ago, and told the pope that questions persist about the merit of celibacy and the ban against ordaining women. It is "a source of great anxiety," he told the pope, who had heard a similar message from priests on his first stop in Miami.

In separate remarks, Archbishop Quinn observed the difficulties of trying to adapt historic church teachings on such questions of social and sexual morality to a complex modern world.

"We recognize our grave obligation to teach courageously and bear witness to the whole . . . Gospel, even in the face of ridicule and opposition," he said. "At the same time, we also recognize that we cannot fulfill our task simply by an uncritical application of solutions designed in past ages for problems which have qualitatively changed or which did not exist in the past . . . .

"As moral theology continues its struggle to understand God's revelation, new human problems and realities are constantly developing," he said.

The pope made clear his view that such changes require greater compassion, not greater adaptability, from the church. Rather than accommodating their religion to the times, he said, American Catholics face a special responsibility to hold the line against what is immoral about the times.

"But how is the American culture evolving today?" he asked. "Your music, your poetry and art, your drama, your painting and sculpture, the literature that you are producing -- are all those things which reflect the soul of a nation being influenced by the spirit of Christ for the perfection of humanity?"

"With reference to this question, and in such areas as politics, economics, mass media and international life, we are charged to lead our people to holiness . . . ," he said. "The service of our pastoral leadership . . . far from bearing an authoritarian style in any way, must listen and encourage, challenge and, at times, correct."

In a news conference after the meeting, Pilarczyk characterized the session with the pope as "very cordial, very warm." It was "a professional meeting of bishops with the bishop of Rome, whom they see as their elder brother . . . . Nobody expected the Holy Father to solve all their problems . . . .

"I think the bishops will go home and do what they did before," he said, then added, "with more enthusiasm."