The nation's Roman Catholic bishops declared yesterday that the United States has a moral right to wage war against terrorists in the aftermath of Sept. 11 but also must pay greater attention to the roots of terrorism.

About 260 bishops, meeting here in their semi-annual general assembly, called on the Bush administration to lift sanctions on Iraq, work urgently to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and be more generous in fighting poverty around the world.

"No grievance, no matter what the claim, can legitimate what happened on Sept. 11," they said, but added: "Without in any way excusing indefensible terrorist acts, we still need to address those conditions of poverty and injustice which are exploited by terrorists."

The bishops voted to reject a plea by Thomas J. Gumbleton, the auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, for a purely nonviolent response to the attacks on New York and Washington. But some of his colleagues clearly were stirred by Gumbleton's appeal for a "return to the original teaching of the church" that violence is never the answer.

Their final statement said "principled nonviolence . . . is a valid Christian response" and "military force, even when justified and carefully executed, must always be undertaken with a sense of deep regret."

The debate over the 15-page pastoral message was one of the few public attempts by a large group of eminent but unelected Americans to reach consensus on the causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the proper response.

It reflected many of the dilemmas facing the Bush administration in Afghanistan and concerns about damage to civil liberties in the United States, as well as the long-standing tension between pacifism and the concept of a just war in Christian theology.

"What we were trying to do was achieve a balance," said Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who oversaw the drafting of the statement, after it was adopted by a vote of 167 to 4 in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

While bishops "feel that the military action undertaken was justified by moral principles," Law said, "at the same time, we believe that military action, once begun, has to be monitored for its adherence to those moral principles. . . . The bombing has a purpose, and once that purpose is achieved, it needs to stop."

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, said the document did not depart theologically from previous statements by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on other conflicts, including the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign.

"We've always been consistent that . . . a pacifist defense is possible for individuals, but a government has a responsibility to defend its people," McCarrick said.

The original draft of "A Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope After Sept. 11" was amended to include an appeal for aid to avert the starvation of Afghan civilians this winter and a condemnation of "the unconscionable policies which have led to the deaths, from disease and malnutrition, of hundreds of thousands of children" in Iraq.

The document also warned against curtailing civil liberties at home.

"Enforcement actions must not be indiscriminate in their application or based upon ethnic background, national origin or religious affiliation," it said.

The conference rejected an amendment from Bishop Joseph F. Naumann of St. Louis "to more explicitly commend" the Bush administration for adhering to "just war principles."

But the final document still contained strong approbation for the war, saying the United States "has a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against mass terrorism."

For Catholics in uniform "to risk their own lives in this defense is a great service to our nation and an act of Christian virtue," it said.

In the emotional high point of the debate, Gumbleton, a longtime pacifist, read a letter from Colleen Kelly of the Bronx, whose brother, William H. Kelly Jr., was killed on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center.

"I do not know what Christ would do in these current times, but I am certain he would not advocate the bombing of anyone," she wrote.

Gumbleton then urged the bishops to "just let go of the 'just war' theology." His motion was defeated, 147 to 22.

In an interview afterward, Gumbleton said there has been a steady decline in support for his position among U.S. Catholic leaders since 1983, when concerns about the Reagan military buildup spawned a pastoral letter that spoke at length about nonviolence.

"Since then, the fact that the United States has been able to wage war with just a minimum of casualties has made it seem like we're invulnerable," he said. "And the truly tragic thing is, we don't count the bodies that we leave behind on the other side."