An attempt by the worldwide leader of the Jesuits to discipline and transfer a maverick local priest has backfired unexpectedly.

As a result, the Very Rev. Pedro Arrupe, director general of the Jesuits, now finds himself in a confrontation with the head of Catholic church's largest American diocese, Cardinal John Cody of Chicago.

It happened like this.

Arrupe, under pressure from Pope John Paul II to rein in dissident members of his order, last November directed that the Rev. William R. Callahan, founder of Priests for Equality, be reassigned from the Washington area. Among other things, Callahan advocates that the Catholic priesthood be opened to women.

After Callahan spoke with his superior, the Rev. Edward O'Flaherty, head of the New England province of Jesuits, it was decided that Callahan would be reassigned to the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, where he would write and help raise funds.

Callahan was scheduled to leave for Chicago today, scheduled, that is, until he got a call last week from O'Flaherty, telling him to sit tight. Cody, one of the more conservative members of the hierarchy in this country, had objected to the reassignment.

"There is nothing on paper," said the Rev. James O'Brien, an aide to O'Flaherty, "but the cardinal called the provincial (the head of the Chicago Jesuit province) and made it very clear that he was very upset over the assignment and did not wish to have (Callahan) in the archdiocese . . . that the Jesuit School of Theology already had enough people out there he (Cody) wasn't very happy with."

Under church law, Jesuits are classified as an "exempt order," which means they are not subject to the directives of local bishops, such as Cody.

"But that would be highly uncooperative," O'Brien observed yesterday, and not the way the order likes to work.

It would also raise practical difficulties, since Cody has made it clear that he would not extend priestly faculties to Callahan, prohibiting him from preaching, hearing confession or performing marriages in the Chicago archdiocese.

O'Flaherty has sent a report on the stalemate to Arrupe's office in Rome. (Arrupe himself is touring India and unreachable.) It will be up to the director general to decide whether to exercise his authority, or to yield to the Chicago cardinal.

"The ball is in his court," O'Brien said. "After all he started the ball moving in the first place."