George Bush, speaking last week to a group called the Inter-American Dialogue, said he didn't understand the Catholic church's policies toward Central American, particularly the seeming closeness of the clergy to Marxist revolutions. Bush was quoted as saying, "Maybe it makes me a right-wing extremist, but I'm puzzled. I just don't understand it."

One of those in the audience was the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University. Being an educator who is patient with dim learners, he took a back-to-basics approach with George Bush. He spoke as much to Bush's puzzlement as to the Reagan administration's persistent and simplistic blame-the-Commies blind-set. He repeated the church's position. The poor are suffering. Reforms are needed. The clergy are working for them. So are Marxists. That doesn't make the clergy Marxists.

The same day that Hesburgh sought to educate Bush, Pope John Paul II was on his way to Central America. For those in El Salvador and Washington who didn't hear him the first time, the pope would repeat his message of last August to the Salvadoran bishops: "I am perfectly aware that the discords and divisions that still disturb your country and cause new conflicts and violence have their true and deep root in situations of social injustice."

As much as the need was there, the pope had to leave to others the depuzzling of George Bush this task, after Hesburgh's initial try, was left to Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, who went before two House subcommittees. Hickey, with both the vice president and Secretary of State George Schultz in mind -- Schultz also saw churchmen as tight with subversives in Central American -- said that "the primary issue in El Salvador is the domestic, political and economic structure of the country, not the role of the Soviet Union or Cuba in Central America . . . We reject innuendo suggesting that church policy in Central America serves Marxist interests."

Whether or not Bush is a real-article right-wing extremist, his inability to tell the difference between Catholicism and Marxism is part of a continued learning disorder. It was Bush who toasted Ferdinand Marcos: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process." Bush probably also is puzzled by the Catholic bishops of the Phillipines who rebuked Marcos last month for his brutality and corruption.

Bush and Ronald Reagan team well. The vice president has his choice dictators, the President his. In December, Reagan said Guatemala's Rios Montt was "totally dedicated to democracy." Amnesty International's statement aside, that Guatemalan's regime has "massacred more than 2,600 Indians and peasants." Rios Montt's total dedication had an update when his government executed six prisoners on the eve of the pope's visit. The pope had asked for leniency.

Neither Reagan nor Bush is a reflective man able to draw on history for lessons. If they were, the church in Latin America would be -- by its ability to reexamine its views and change course -- a model to be followed not a threat to be scorned.

For generations before 1960, churchmen catered to the rich. Military units were blessed. Future dictators were educated in Catholic schools. The theoretical base for the change in Latin America's clergy is traceable to Vatican II and Pope Paul VI, not the Communist Manifesto or Karl Marx. Paul's encylical on liberation, social justice and economic development, based on applying the scriptures to current conditions, created mass conversions among the Latin American clergy. El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain in 1980, regularly acknowledged he once had been a conservative prelate. So did Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, now called the "Red Bishop" by the right, but embraced by the pope on his 1980 visit to Brazil.

To think that the Romeros and Cameras had their minds changed by Marxism is as wrongheaded as believing that today's revolutionaries can't make a move without phoning Havana or Moscow. By any reasonable analysis -- from looking at the programs waged by governments against their citizens to the unsolved murders of American church people -- the social revolutions are justified.

Had the teachings and pleas of churchmen like Paul VI, Romero and now John Paul been heeded by Central America's rulers and wealthy, the revolutions could have been nonviolent, or certainly less bloody. But the powerful resisted. America armed them, trained their military and now the Reagan administration, blaming the church for the chaos, wants to send more arms.

The war of words against the church is as sure to fail as the war of bullets against the poor.