PROVIDENCE, R.I., JAN. 10 -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, in an apparent first, has issued a formal statement saying it is morally permissible to allow a comatose person to die.

Diocese theologian Robert J. McManus -- in a statement endorsed by Bishop Louis Gelineau -- said today that H. Glenn Gray may morally decide to withhold nourishment from his wife, who has been in a coma for two years.

"Based on what the doctors have given as a prognosis, I believe this woman is dying, that the dying pro-cess began the moment she suffered the massive cerebral hemorrhage, and all the medical treatments have only served to prolong that," McManus said.

Gray filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to force the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals to stop feeding his 48-year-old wife, Marcia, who lapsed into a coma in 1986 after a cerebral hemorrhage.

His lawyer, Linda MacDonald, had sought the opinion from the diocese, and will use McManus' paper as part of her case when law-yers present statements to a federal judge this week.

The Rev. Robert Barry, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, said Gelineau and auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Angell "would be the first bishops to say it is okay to withdraw food and water. As far as I know, they are breaking ranks with their fellow bishops."

A 1980 Vatican declaration said that when death is imminent "it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to a sick person in similar cases is not interrupted."

The Vatican also recognizes a patient's right to refuse or interrupt "extraordinary" life-prolonging medical treatment.

McManus said that the opinion is limited to the Gray case and is not a blanket endorsement of euthanasia.