The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, raising moral concerns about the U.S. posture in the Persian Gulf, appealed yesterday for a sharp limitation on the use of military force there.

At their annual meeting here, the bishops voted 249 to 15 to affirm a letter sent last week to Secretary of State James A. Baker III by Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who is chairman of the International Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

In the letter, sent the day before the Bush administration increased U.S. troop strength in the gulf, Mahony urged that "the U.S., in continued cooperation with the United Nations, the Soviet Union, Arab states and other nations, stay the course of persistent, peaceful and determined pressure against Iraq.

"We understand that a strong military presence can give credibility to a vigorous pursuit of non-violent solutions to the crisis," Mahony wrote. "My concern is that the pressure to use military force may grow as the pursuit of non-violent options almost inevitably becomes difficult, complex and slow. . . "

The bishops' action came on the opening day of their annual four-day meeting, which is also scheduled to address topics that include Catholic schools, the demands of priesthood, and human sexuality. A controversial policy statement from the bishops on women's concerns -- which affirms women's equality but says they should not be ordained as priests -- is scheduled for discussion Thursday, but the explosive agenda item will not come up for a formal vote.

The gulf resolution did not go far enough for several bishops.

Bishop Michael Kenny, of Juneau, Alaska, pushed for a stronger resolution that would have addressed the potential use of strategic nuclear weapons and the costs of war, as well as offered moral guidance to Catholics on what they might do individually in case of war.

"We don't hesitate to tell Catholic people what to do about abortion or about the use of condoms," Kenny said.

He recently went to Baghdad as a representative of a private group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation and returned with four American men, who were freed by Iraq because they were ill.

The bishops voted to debate the gulf issue privately in greater detail during a Wednesday executive session. Mahony told reporters later he would urge that a public statement be made after the closed session.

On another sensitive issue, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee said he was disappointed that the Vatican has barred the University of Fribourg in Switzerland from granting him an honorary degree, after Rome asserted that his criticism of some of the tactics of the antiabortion movement had caused confusion among the faithful.

The archbishop said he did not regret his statements and considered the decision against him "the first kind of test case" of a recent papal document on Catholic higher education affirming academic freedom and inquiry. "If I were a president of a university, I'd be nervous," Weakland said.

Outside the bishops' meeting, about 100 demonstrators from around the country rallied to call for the empowerment of women in the church, including their ordination.