Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in a rebuke of Roman Catholic conservatives who concentrate on the abortion issue, called on church leaders yesterday to "refute decisively claims that we are a 'one-issue' constituency."

Bernardin is leader of moderate forces in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In remarks prepared for the 1988 meeting of diocesan social action directors and staff, he warned that "there are very disturbing signs of increased racial tension in the land," that housing has been neglected for a decade leaving a "looming catastrophe of more homeless families," and President Reagan's much vaunted era of economic growth "still has left too many vulnerable to economic devastation."

The speech, an elaboration of Bernardin's theory of the "consistent ethic of life," was a sharp rebuke of conservatives in the church who have focused almost exclusively on abortion and sex-related issues. It will play a major role in setting the agenda for the church's involvement in the 1988 election process.

"We are committed to reversing the arms race and reversing Roe v. Wade," Bernardin said, referring to the Supreme Court decision permitting abortion. "We are convinced that we cannot have a just and compassionate society unless our care extends on both sides of the line of birth: to protecting the right to life and to promoting the associated rights of nutrition, housing and health care which enhances the lives we have saved."

He first suggested the notion of a "consistent ethic of life," sometimes called the "seamless garment," in a 1983 speech in which he sought to link the church's antiabortion stance with its opposition to the arms race. The linkage continues to be fiercely resisted by conservatives and antiabortion militants who make opposition to abortion the single moral and political touchstone.

But Bernardin said Catholics should use it as "a grid for assessing party platforms and the record of candidates for public office."

"Properly used," he added, "the 'consistent ethic' will refute decisively claims that we are a 'one-issue' constituency. It is the essence of the 'consistent ethic' argument that no one issue can exhaust the moral significance of our public-policy concerns."

The Chicago cardinal is considered to be the leader of the faction in the more than 300-member bishops' conference seeking to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and make the conference a major force in public-policy debates in the United States.