American Catholics should stop complaining that the pope doesn't understand their views on contraception, divorce or women's rights and instead heed his message, a Jesuit theologian told a Catholic group here this week.

"The most important feedback to be useful to Rome is not our incessant pleading that the pope listen to us, but that we comprehend what he is saying," said the Rev. James V. Schall of Georgetown University.

"I do not think we are listening to a pope who has not listened" to an interpretation of the American scene, he continued. "I think we are listening to a pope who has listened and who is throwing the ball back to us."

Schall, a professor of political theology, addressed about 150 persons -- mostly priests and nuns -- at Catholic University's Hartke Theater.

The conference, which also featured Archbishop Marcos G. Mcgrath of Panama, was organized and sponsored by the Office of Social Development of the Washington Archdiocese.

Mcgrath discussed last winter's Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops, for which he headed the coordinating committee.

The two churchmen, who reflected quite different facets of contemporary Catholicism, had no chance to exchange views during the day-long conference.

Calling the sweeping changes of the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965 the "greatest ecclesiastical event of our century," Mcgrath said that the Puebla deliberaitions were based on the actual experiences of Catholics in Latin America.

"The life of the people of God becomes our theological reflection," he said of the document produced by the 179 bishops at the conference. "the practice of Christian living becomes the source of our reflection."

Schall, on the other hand, viewed the practices of North American Catholics, particularly in relation to sexual ethics, as something that needed correcting.

The Jesuit cited statistics reflecting the growing discrepancy between church teaching and American Catholics' views on such matters as birth control, divorce and abortion.

"The criteria of what human beings ought to do is not to be taken from what they do do,' Schall said.

The pope, he continued, "does not consider that that doctrine needs to be changed even though large numbers of church members do not live up to it.

"Just because of the Mafia, that is no reason to repeal the Fifth Commandment (Thou shall not kill)," he added.

Schall explained that John Paul, "as a christian and as a pope, knows that man will fail in many, many things. . . . The pope realizes that the most important thing he must do is to address himself to the content of Christianity."

In Schall's view, that is why the pope has concentrated on the fundamentals of the faith, both in his recent trip here and in his encyclical of last March, entitled Redemptor Humanis.

"The one basic purpose" of the encyclical, Schall said, is to "challenge us to think again" on the basic Christian doctrine, because "it is clear that many of us are not willing to rethink Christian truths. That is why we have a pope who has reminded us of the source of our revelation . . . of who we are" as Christians.

Twice in his address, Schall reprimanded liberal theologians for "confusing" rank-and-file church members with theological speculation that runs counter to established church doctrine.

"The normal Christian has a right not to be confused by subtle theological arguments manipulated by the various media," he said.

In his remarks, Archbishop Mcgrath took issue with news reports that Pope John Paul II, in his address opening the Puebla conference in January had denounced liberation theology or the view that Christians should help the oppressed.

"He struck hard at those who would reduce the church to a political in strument," Mcgrath explained, but upheld the need for the church to defend the oppressed.

Mcgrath said the pope emphasized the basic Christian belief "that every individual is made in the image of God, is a son of God -- and that (principle) we must defend with out lives."

Mcgrath said that a central thrust of the Puebla document, which has not yet been published in English, is that the church must ally itself with the poor.

Calling poverty "the extreme scandal" in Latin America, he explained that the gap between the "extreme rich" and the poor continues to grow in Latin America.

"The emphasis of Puebla," he said "is on the poor, on the very tremendous scandal of poverty we have in our countries."

Within recent decades, Mcgrath said, the Roman Catholic Church has become "the church of the poor. In most of the countries, the church is no longer identified with the powerful, the rich, but with the poor."

He added that in the church in Panama, "the rich come to church on Sunday," but they no longer dominate the church. "In our large gatherings, 90 percent of the people there are the poor," he said.