The Vatican's approach to the United States still retains a colonialist flavor.

In one sense, American Catholics stopped being religious colonials in 1908, when our country was removed from the jurisdiction of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and thus lost its official status as mission territory.

But in another sense, the Catholic Church here remains a religious colony, administered by bishops, archbishops and cardinals appointed in Rome, who still refer all important questions to the home office.

The United States is not unique in being treated this way: To old-style officials at the Vatican, the whole world is a colony -- Rome speaks, and the world listens.

The two special, overriding facts about the United States in the mind of the Vatican are that it's a country filled with Protestants and has produced a high proportion of "difficult" Catholics.

It's hard to find Protestant churches in Rome -- Partly because there aren't many, but even more because an old law forbids them to have doors opening directly on the street. Despite all his thousands of miles of travel -- around Italy, to Poland, Mexico and Ireland -- Pope John Paul's visit here will be his first opportunity since his election to see Protestanta or their churches in significant numbers.

This is one of the points about Pope John Paul's trip to America that that has caused quiet misgivings among some of the more conservative people he left behind him at the Vatican. The United States, in this view, is still a wild country, and the pope, with his track record of going outside established procedures and chains of command, could easily run into the wrong sort of people.

This category, moreover, is by no means exclusively limited to Protestants. There are now essentially two Catholic churches in the United States, coexisting uneasily and communicating very little.

In the normal course of events, Pope John Paul and the people who work for him at the Vatican would have contacts only with "Church II" (a term invented by priest-sociologist Andrew Creeley), the hierarchical-administrative superstructure of bishops, chancery officials and national organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

During his visit, the pope can be expected to spend most of his time visiting Church II, with which the Vatican has close though rather paternalistic relations. The big question in Rome is the extent to which he will also notice Church I, whose existence is hardly recognized at the Vatican.

"Church I," the "plain folks" at the parish level, exists in the Vatican mythology as a relatively inert mass of simple people who accept wise counsel and judicious administration from the central authority and its hand-picked local administrators -- or sometimes (lamentably often, in recent years) as rebellious subjects who must be sternly admonished.

The relation of the Vatican to Church I is probably the most important question in the complex interaction between the international church and its third-largest national consituency.

A sort of colonial nostalgia can be caught sometimes in messages from the men in the field back to the home office.In 1974, for example, in a report prepared for an international synod in Rome, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that the American natives were getting restless.

For many Catholics, the document said, "the influence of secular society -- and all that implies, for good as well as ill -- counts more heavily than the influence of the church." It cited studies indicating that Catholics in this country have a growing tolerance of abortion in some circumstances, reject official teaching on birth control, tend to agree with non-Catholics on most social issues and have a divorce rate "not markedly different from that of other Americans."

While they may not have rejected the church, the bishops' statement said, "Catholic beliefs and values no longer occupy the same central place in their lives that they did in the lives of their parents and grandparents -- and may have done in their own lives in years gone by." This is essentially a description of what Greeley calls "Church I."

The colony is not exactly in open rebellion, as it seemed to be -- at least sporadically -- a decade ago; the attitude now is not angry but simply "turned off," the expression used by a few American priests in Rome and by more in this country. Greeley used it in his description of Church I: the members of this group have been "turned off," he said. They "don't listen to bishops . . . They just want to be left alone."

On the more official level -- the relations of bishops and cardinals here to bishops and cardinals there -- America may at last be coming of age.

"In previous generations," reflects an American priest who has worked in the Vatican for more than a decade, "the relation of the American church to the Vatican was characterized by distance, passivity, an exaggerated reverence and simple ignorance of how things work around here. That seems to be changing -- improving."

Among the bishops the experience of the Second Vatican Council and several subsequent international synods has begun to awaken a new awareness of the inner dynamics at the Vatican.

In the '60s, for example, decisions handed down from Rome tended to be accepted by the American bishops without question or complaint -- that was the fate, for example, of a request for permission to experiment in new liturgical forms that was sent to Rome and turned down.

"The bishops just accepted it with no follow through," a priest recalls. "At that time, the American hierarchy was distant from the Vatican not just in miles but in mentality. If it had been done to Belgium, Cardinal Suenens would have been here on the next plane raising hell."

More recently, the bishops showed a different spirit when the Vatican suspended a new set of experimental norms for trying annulment cases. These norms were supposed to speed up the annulment process, and they did, which may be why they were discontinued.

This time the American bishops did some discreet lobbying, the norms were reinstated on an experimental basis, and now an attempt is being made to have them written into permanent canon law -- at least for the United States.

With the establishment of national and regional bishops' conferences, the American bishops are becoming more organized, more acutely aware of a collective identity and of mutual interests in relation to the Vatican that can be handled more effectively through collective action. Representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops are now seen fairly often in Rome.

But if the Vatican has established a more practical working relationship with the American bishops, it still has no system outside the traditional chain of command for dealing with the rank-and-file clergy and laity.

When St. Paul was arrested for disturbing the peace more than 1900 years ago, he invoked his rights as a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar and was taken to Rome. Ultimately, this did him no good -- he was put to death under Nero -- but there have been occasional echoes of his gesture when Catholics unhappy with their local bishop have appealed directly to the pope. The success record of such appeals is not much more encouraging than St. Paul's -- except that today's pope does not have the power of capital punishment, as the Roman emperors did, and in recent decades popes have become very sparing in their use of that other ultimate weapon, excommunication.

A recent instance was an appeal hand-delivered to John Paul II in May by a representative of the Association of Chicago Priests, an unofficial organization that claims as members more than 40 percent of the Chicago diocesan clergy. The association would not disclose the exact contents of the appeal, except that it contained a list of grievances against Cardinal John Cody and asked the pope to meet two Chicago priests and discuss their problems.

Last year, the association had tried to get a hearing with the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (then headed by the late Cardinal John Wright which normally handles conflicts of authority. It was turned down because it is not an officially recognized organization. This time the pope received the appeal, but -- perhaps with his planned trip to Chicago in mind -- gave no immediate indication of what he might decide.

For a decade before his death, Cardinal Wright was the most visible American presence at the Vatican, the only American department head. But like some Americans who hold less prominent positions in the Roman Curia, he seems to have made a special effort to think and work in universal terms, not to act as a representative (official or otherwise) of his native country. Curia people are very much the pope's men and, as a rule, acutely aware of their roles as universal arbiters in an international church. "There was not much American influence at the Vatican under Pope Paul," according to one veteran American observer in Rome. "Cardinal Spellman had been very close to Pius XII, but Paul wasn't doing him any special favors. And when Cardinal Wright was brought over to Rome, there was no sign that he ever became a member of the inner circle or made his weight felt."

At present, unless an organization like the Association of Chicago priests should achieve a startling break through, the American rank-and-file Catholic still faces the discouraging prospect of going through the chain of command to communicate meaningfully with the Vatican. The prospect seems slightly less discouraging to some Catholics because that chain now includes John Paul II at the end.