The president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday wrote President Bush that offensive action against Iraq would likely violate the moral criteria that Catholic tradition considers essential for a "just war."

The letter, written by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, said, "The use of weapons of war cannot be a substitute for the difficult, often time-consuming and frustrating work of searching for political solutions to the deep-seated problems in the Middle East which have contributed to this current crisis."

The criteria that must be satisfied to justify the use of military force include just cause, initiation by proper authority, sufficient probability of success, last resort and the proportionality of "human, economic and other costs of war" to "the objective to be achieved by the use of weapons of war," Pilarczyk's letter said.

"I fear that, in this situation, moving beyond deployment of military forces in an effort to deter Iraqi aggression to the undertaking of offensive military action could well violate these criteria . . . , " Pilarczyk wrote Bush at the conclusion of the bishops' four-day meeting here.

His letter was stronger than a warning the bishops endorsed Monday to Secretary of State James A. Baker III to limit military action in the gulf.

The bishops were not alone in their warning to Bush. The American Civil Liberties Union and 45 national political and religious organizations demanded yesterday that he seek congressional approval before going to war against Iraq.

The National Council of Churches' governing unit also raised moral objections to a possible war, calling for a substantial reduction in U.S. troop strength in the gulf and for the troops remaining to be placed under U.N. command. The nation's largest ecumenical body also called for an international conference to develop a comprehensive Mideast peace.

"The present crisis cannot be isolated from the unresolved issues of the region as a whole," the statement said.

On another subject, the bishops were told that a controversial policy-making pastoral letter on concerns of women, a vote on which the conference had postponed indefinitely, is not likely to be considered by them before their meeting next November. The final draft affirms women's equality but says they cannot be priests.