Vatican directives to American priests to get out of politics raised more questions than they answered.

While Pope John Paul II had made it clear to Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) and the Rev. Robert J. Cornell of Wisconsin that they may not run for public office this fall, the status of many other Catholics is uncertain.

Are nuns as well as priests barred from serving in public office?

Does the get-the-priests-out-of-politics policy apply to men in appointive positions such as Msgr. Geno Baroni, an assistant secretary with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who heads the government's commission on immigration and refugee policy?

Will priests be banned from such roles as serving on municipal boards of education, as the Rev. Raymond Kemp did here several years ago, or on city councils?

Are priests to be excluded from the advocacy or lobbying aspect of the political scene?

Whether or not Rome plans to issue a directive in the near future is itself the subject of speculation.

The directives sent to Drinan and Cornell, explained Bishop Thomas C. Kelly, head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, involved merely "a reaffirmation of current church discipline. We all knew the discipline was there."

Church law, long in effect, specifies that a priest is not to engage in secular politics except in unusual circumstances and then only with the permission of his superior.

Drinan received such permission 10 years ago when he first ran for Congress, presumably with the blessing of then Pope Paul VI.

Pope John Paul II several times has stated his perference for a more restricted role for priests. "You are participants in the ministry of Christ for the service of the unity of the community," he told a gathering of Latin American priests in Mexico City last year.

"You are not social directors, political leaders or functionaries of a temporal power," he continued. "Do not forget that temporal leadership can easily become a source of division, while the priest should be a sign and factor of unity, of brotherhood. The secular functions are the proper field of action of the laity, who ought to perfect temporal matters with a Christian spirit."

In the light of this address as well as other papal comments in a similar vein, Kelly said that he "would have been surprised" if the pope had permitted Drinan to run again.

Kelly defended the pope's action by pointing out that "the priest is basically a minister of the Gospel, who may provide moral leadership in the political arena.

"But that moral leadership is jeopardized" if the priest aligns himself with a political faction, he said. For when a priest becomes a political candidate "he can't distance himself from partisan political positions, which a moral leader has to do."

Kelly would not speculate on how John Paul II's interpretation of the priestly role would affect persons in appointive office, such as Baroni or Hesburgh, except to suggest that "it's going to have to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

Msgr. John Egan, special assistant to Hesburgh at the University of Notre Dame, said that as far as he knew, Hesburgh has received no directive from Rome regarding his government service.

"I hope the question isn't raised," Egan said. "It would be most unfortunate, most unfortunate if that applied to appointive offices."

Egan said that over the years Hesburgh has been sensitive to potential problems that would be raised by a priest in public service. "He has turned down Cabinet positions, [becoming] the head of NASA, the poverty program, and I've a feeling that he turned down the vice presidency when Eagleton withdrew, because he had the feeling that he can serve the country best as an educator and spiritual leader," Egan said.

Sister Lora Ann Quinonez, executive secretary of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said she had no information as to whether the order against priests in public office might be applied to sisters as well."

"I haven't seen anything in writing; I don't know," she said. A spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate also said that church law does not deal specifically with this question.

"What is important now is to keep dialogue open on the way things are in different cultures," said Quinonez.

Two years ago the Vatican Congregation for Religious conducted a special conference on the "Socio-Political Involvement of Religious." No written conclusions resulted. But an American delegate, Archbishop James J. Byrne of Dubuque, Iowa, said at the time that the gathering agreed that "only infrequently should religious [nuns and brothers] take the lead, so to speak, in the social and especially in the political fields." He added that the conference concluded that "religious should mainly prepare laity to work in the social and political fields" by offering them "guidance, help and encouragement."

In Byrne's own hometown of Dubuque, a nun, Sister Carolyn Farrell, now is serving as mayor. Byrne could not be reached for comment on the current situation.

Within the past decade a number of organizations have developed, consisting largely of priests and sisters, devoted to advocacy of social justice in the political realm. Typical is the Center of Concern here, headed by the Rev. Peter Henroit.

The Jesuit priest-economist admitted he is watching the situation with some concern. "We are trying to read what the extent of the mandate is," Henroit said.

So far, he said, "we certainly haven't had any hint that the Vatican is displeased with the justice and peace movement that to a large extent we are involved in."

At the same time, Henroit admitted he was stunned at the order that took Drinan out of the halls of Congress. "In a church that has said so strongly verbally that it is calling for justice, the pope seems to be saying that is the role of the laity," Henroit observed.

"Drinan would have been chairman of the refugee committee [in the next Congress]" he continued. "That's pretty priestly work -- refugees."