The Vatican, in a stunning intervention in the life of the U.S. Catholic Church, sharply criticized efforts by the bishops to forestall theological dissent, and American bishops have temporarily withdrawn the guidelines from consideration.

Bishop Raymond Lessard, Savannah, Ga., stunned the 300 bishops attending the opening session of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, when he announced that his committee on doctrine had received a letter from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith objecting to the committee's proposed statement on "theological responsibilities."The statement, which was to be presented to the bishops Monday and voted on Tuesday afternoon, set out a series of guidelines defining the differing roles of bishops and theologians in the life of the church. The guidelines suggested a set of procedures, including theological dialogue, aimed at resolving problems when theologians appeared to dissent from official church teaching.

But Lessard told the bishops that despite his committee's belief that they had taken a "reasonable and fair approach," the Vatican argued the document seemed to give bishops and theologians equal footing in the church - a threat to the teaching authority of bishops.

Lessard said that because of the last-minute intervention by the Vatican, his committee believed "the wisest course at present" would be to withdraw the document and that a U.S. delegation meet with Roman Curia officials "and explain the intent as well as the content" of the proposed document.

The sudden Vatican action underscored what is emerging as the central theme of this year's meeting of the American bishops - their testy relations with the Vatican.

Earlier, Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, president of the bishops conference, announced that a major delegation of U.S. bishops would go to Rome next year for a "special meeting" with Pope John Paul to discuss the strained relations between Rome and Washington, headquarters for the conference.

Also on the bishops' agenda this week is a formal response to a Vatican draft statement that would sharply narrow the role of episcopal conferences such as the NCCB, a document that the U.S. bishops believe ought to be totally scrapped.