War, women and the Bible occupied deliberations of U.S. Roman Catholics bishops in the closing session of their annual fall meeting.

As the National Conference of Catholic Bishops ended its session Thursday, the bishops' presiding officer dispatched a hand-delivered letter to the White House telling President Bush that offensive military action in the Middle East at this point could violate church principles about war.The church leaders adopted standards for Bible readings in worship services that would not stereotype first-century Jewish attitudes toward Jesus and would be more inclusive of women.

The bishops also signaled their determination to keep trying to produce a temporarily stalled pastoral teaching letter on women's role in the church and society.

Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., head of a committee that has worked on the letter for seven years, said it still is "alive and well."

The "work continues," he told the gathering. "I want to erase any doubt about the future of the committee or the pastoral letter."

Possibilities were seen for action on it next year or the year after, but Imesch added wryly, "If we aren't done by 1999, we all quit."

Following widespread criticism that past drafts were inconsistent in upholding equal opportunities for women, but reaffirming their exclusion from the priesthood, action on the letter at this meeting was put off. The Vatican suggested that other national bishops' conferences be consulted about it.

Imesch told reporters that "it would be a miracle" if the main stumbling block - the tension between the equality principle and church barrier to women's ordination - could be overcome.

Asked if bishops as one of the few exclusively male organizations left in the country felt uncomfortable in trying to define the place of women, he said, "There's a great deal of uncomfortability."

He added much input from women has come through hearings across the country.

In the floor discussion, Auxiliary Bishop Francis P. Murphy of Baltimore said the extensive discussion has "raised consciousness in the church and the country and thrown light on the equal or unequal experience of women in the church and society."'

In the letter to Bush, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, the conference president, said of the Persian Gulf crisis:

"We urge our government and our allies to continue to pursue the course of peaceful pressure and not resort to war."

He said a military offensive now "could well violate" the church's age-old "just war" criteria, requiring that objectives justify the human costs, that it not target civilian areas and that all reasonable peace efforts have failed.

Meanwhile, Imesch confirmed reports that comments from the Vatican's doctrinal congregation had accompanied the suggestion to delay the letter, but the contents had not been released.

Some other bishops, most of whom asked not to be identified, said they had heard the Vatican message criticizes the letter's defense of women's rights in regard to husbands.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit said he had heard some of it is "so bad they don't want to see it let out."