In adopting their first comprehensive guidelines on human sexuality, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops call it a "divine gift" that should be carefully nurtured.

"We do not fear sexuality, we embrace it," the bishops said both in lauding that universal human endowment and reaffirming traditional church restraints in expressing it.In the 185-page assessment of sexuality, approved Wednesday to guide education on the subject, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops added:

"We are dealing with a divine gift, a primal dimension of each person, a mysterious blend of spirit and body, which shares in God's own creative love and life.

"What we fear at times is our own inability to think as highly of the gift as does the God who made us sexual human beings."

While maintaining long-established church disapproval of premarital and extramarital sexual intercourse, the document does so in gentle, reasoned tones, and somewhat tempers past strictures against homosexuality.

"Such an orientation, because not freely chosen, is not sinful," said an amendment added in a motion by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and several others.

It came after Bishop Raymond W. Lessard of Savannah, Ga., sought unsuccessfully to insert a 1986 Vatican declaration calling homosexuality a "strong tendency toward intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder."

Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco called that a philosophical analysis that has been misunderstood as meaning such people were "intrinsically disordered and bad."

"Every human being has some disordered tendency," such as toward anger and greed, Quinn said.

The Vatican statement was put in a footnote, along with an explanation that it was not meant to demean individuals. It has caused "untold damage," pushing "many over the brink to confront the church head-on," said Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, Conn.

Another flurry erupted over the document's reiteration of the church ban on contraception. Surveys indicate that a large proportion of Catholics reject the ban.

The document, titled "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning," was drawn up by a special task force.

It was offered to guide sex education in families, parishes and church schools.

Several bishops sharply criticized the guidelines, saying parents had not been widely consulted and predicting that many would pull their children out of Catholic schools because of them.