WASHINGTON -- In the 1940s and '50s, when popes were as remote as the hermits of Mt. Athos, the occasional dissenter in the American church was likely to be called a "Commonweal Catholic." The name came from the magazine. Catholic intellectuals -- the phrase was seen as a contradiction 40 years ago -- wrote for Commonweal as church loyalists but not Vatican loyalists.

In the magazine, papal politics was examined the way other journals covered Washington politics. In the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II commands as much front-page space as a president, "Commonweal Catholics" isn't a phrase much heard. The magazine is as lively as ever, but its philosophy of questioning church policy is so widely held that it is all but a tenet of routine faith.

The breadth and depth of respectful dissent among America's 52 million Catholics is one reason that John Paul's American tour succeeded as theater but failed as reconciliation. His strength of personal integrity and forcefulness of spirit set him apart from nearly all other world leaders. The old Stalin question, "How many divisions has the pope?" is answered by John Paul: He's an army himself.

As a head of the Vatican state, his integrity counts for much. As a pastor trying to claim moral leadership, more than inner goodness is needed. Repeatedly, John Paul missed opportunities to advance his arguments or causes. Instead of covering new ground, he recycled crops from the old.

An example of this soil depletion occurred on the final day of his tour, in Detroit in a major address on abortion. He condemned it, as he did in his 1978 visit. He called on the United States, a nation that records 1.6 million abortions a year, to "defend life," as he did in 1978.

This was a moment to move beyond damnings and exhortings by specifying for the country exactly what the church -- through its social programs and agencies -- is doing to provide alternatives to abortion. The pro-life activities of the church are extensive in caring for women needing services and guidance to choose birth rather than abortion. Some 400 crisis pregnancy centers are run by such Catholic groups as Birthright and Lifeline. Other religious and nonsectarian groups operate more than 2,500 centers that serve women with distressed pregnancies.

The pope could have strengthened his case by saying candidly: Here is some fresh information on how American Catholics are joining with others to protect the unborn through something more than sermons, marches or abortion-clinic picketings. That statement would have had many times the impact of another rote blast from the throne.

John Paul did little for another part of the pro-life front, those members of his church who are leaders of the peace movement. Two priests are currently in federal prison for civil disobedience in defying the government's war plans. A disproportionate number of those arrested in the past decade in civil-disobedience cases have been Catholics. The pope was silent about them. He should have lavished them with praise and blessings. A visit to an imprisoned priest would have been memorable. One of them, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois of the Maryknoll order, was in a Louisiana prison, not far from New Orleans, a papal stop.

This pope is weak-hearted on antiwar issues. He calls for reductions in nuclear weapons, not for the elimination of all weapons. Nothing about that causes discomfort in the Pentagon. John Paul believes in "pursuing disarmament, while guaranteeing legitimate defense." That equivocation leaves the weapons lobby untroubled. Has a bomb or warship ever been promoted as not legitimate?

Not offending the government seems to be a papal priority. When the pope addressed the issue of refugees and illegal aliens pouring into the Southwest from Central America, it appeared as if he were endorsing the sanctuary movement that openly breaks the law to help the displaced. After the media reported it that way, a Vatican spokesman issued a clarification: The Holy Father was speaking generally and "not addressing any specific moral movement." How can someone claim to be a moral leader while avoiding the specifics of hard cases?

Had he been a bold shepherd, John Paul would have encouraged the sanctuary workers to keep breaking the civil law if they are convinced it conflicts with the moral law. The calendar of saints runs deep with believers who did exactly that.

Despite the pope's fervorlessness, those in his flock who live the faith by taking risks or sacrificing for it -- from jailed peacemakers to the staffs of the crisis pregnancy centers -- are likely to keep on flourishing. Support from John Paul would have been an extra but not a necessary grace note. Doing God's work, not a pope's work, is the goal.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group