ON THURSDAY, Pope John Paul II will arrive for a 10-day tour of the southern and western United States. He is, of course, no stranger to these shores. His previous visit in l979 excited a very enthusiastic response throughout the country, and he will doubtless receive a warm welcome once again. But this time he is returning under somewhat more strained circumstances.

During the intervening years, American Catholics have come increasingly under the influence of modern society, abandoning attitudes that have traditionally characterized the faithful. This situation clearly presents serious problems for the pope's evangelical efforts. Yet it also offers him -- paradoxically -- an extraordinary opportu- nity to influence American culture: The increasing integration of Catholics into American society has also opened that society to the influence of Catholicism to an unprecedented degree.

In 1979, John Paul was a new and rather mysterious figure on the world stage; and papal travels, especially to America, were still a novelty. On his arrival here, Americans were won over both by his great personal charm and by the broad appeal of his message. For although the pontiff took the occasion to reaffirm traditional Catholic doctrines, he placed major stress upon the kind of fundamental moral and religious themes that transcend denominational lines. The result was one of the most extraordinary outpourings of admiration and affection for a foreign dignitary that this nation has ever witnessed.

Since then, however, tensions have grown between Rome and the American church over matters of doctrine and discipline. Recent efforts by the Vatican to remove Fr. Charles Curran from his position on the theology department at the Catholic University of America and to place restrictions -- subsequently lifted -- on the episcopal authority of Seattle's Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen have generated considerable opposition from American Catholics and aroused fears that more substantial measures may be in store. As a result, various groups of dissident Catholics (feminists calling for the ordination of women, gays urging a change in the church's ban on homosexual practices) have announced their intention of staging demonstrations throughout the papal tour to express their dissatisfaction.

There are many respects in which America's extremely advanced, materialistic and highly individualistic culture is decidedly unsympathetic to traditional Catholic beliefs and values. Enormous value is attached to personal choice not only with regard to one's vocation and way of life, but also in matters of morality, especially sexual morality. For example, according to a recent poll conducted by Time magazine, only 29 percent of American Catholics regard premarital sex as sinful in all cases; only 24 percent believe that birth control is immoral; and onlyl4 percent accept Catholic teaching that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Indeed, 27 percent are prepared to affirm the right to abortion on demand.

Correspondingly, there is widespread disaffection from so-called "organized religion," and a growing tendency to view religion as a purely private matter. More than 90 percent of the U.S. Catholics Time surveyed said they believe that they may disagree with the pope on doctrinal matters and remain Catholics in good standing. For such people decisions about birth control and other controversial teachings are a private affair which cannot be settled by papal pronouncements.

So when John Paul arrives here Thursday, he will be confronting an uncongenial culture and a rather recalcitrant church. How is he likely to handle the situation? What are the chief obstacles to overcome?

Of crucial significance will be the stance John Paul chooses to take concerning Church doctrine, since it is absolutely certain that he will not suddenly begin jettisoning controversial or unpopular teachings. This is not simply because he would regard any such dilution of doctrine as an evisceration of Catholic truth. It also reflects the belief, confirmed by the experience of mainline Protestantism, that such efforts would ultimately fail to win many converts. As Msgr. Ronald Knox put it 60 years ago, "Dogmas may fly out at the window, but congregations do not come in at the door." The steadfastness of its doctrinal commitments has long been a major source of Catholicism's appeal. The Church's willingness to take a stand, to assert authoritative claims, in an age of great uncertainty holds an enduringly strong attraction for many people -- not least among them intellectuals ranging from Cardinal Newman in the l9th century to Malcolm Muggeridge and Walker Percy in our own day.

Is one thing to reaffirm Church teachings, however, and quite another to insist upon their absolute acceptance. On his previous visit, John Paul presented himself mainly as a pastor and teacher rather than a disciplinarian. At one point he even told his American audience that no group should feel alienated from the church because of some disagreement over a particular teaching. It will be extremely interesting to see if the pope retains that pastoral approach, or whether he will now adopt the style and manner of an Old Testament prophet calling people to repentance.

If he chooses the latter course, it is very likely that people will simply ignore his jeremiads. In this regard, John Paul is rather like a general without an army: If would have the laity follow his directions, he mustfirst persuade because he is not in a position to command.

The pope will also be facing a serious problem of communication. Although the laity tend to be well-educated, most of them have little familiarity with Church teaching (a failure of catechesis which John Paul will not be able to correct on a 10-day tour). What little they do know of Catholic doctrine usually consists of knowledge of what the Church opposes -- birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce and the like. They are much less likely to know the complex reasons underlying such teachings or to be familiar with more comprehensive and positive presentations of the Catholic faith.

Consequently, when the laity hear John Paul's message they may not only disagree with him, they may not even understand him. In a recent interview, Cardinal O'Connor of New York expressed similar concerns. When the pope addresses a pluralistic culture, O'Connor said, "receptivity is clouded. We almost need a translation of some of the holy father's statements into a language more familiar to the average layperson."

What the pope must do then is "present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times" as the Vatican II document Christus Dominus put it. In addition, although he should show no sign of retreating from controversial doctrines, he must place his principal stress on the positive content of Christianity.

That will generate a far warmer response, because hidden beneath the rampant materialism of our culture is a deep spiritual yearning on the part of many Americans. The extraordinary affluence of our society, which contributes so much to our materialism, also makes it possible for an unprecedented number of people to seek after something beyond mere material well-being. Hence the preoccupation with such postmaterialist notions as job satisfaction, personal fulfillment and "wholeness."

It is not surprising, then, that recently numerous observers have suggested that this may be the "Catholic moment" in American history, that the chrch today is singularly situated to make a major contribution to the reformation of American culture. Richard Neuhaus, the principal exponent of this view, contends that historically America's understanding of itself as a polity -- what John Courtney Murray called "the American Proposition" -- rested upon a consensus concerning basic values, including the belief that liberty must be combined with virtue if our nation was to remain free and that religion was an indispensable aid to public virtue.

Under the pressure of moral relativism and secularism, however, this consensus has collapsed. What is needed therefore, Neuhaus argues, is a reconstruction of our public philosophy -- and one in which religiously grounded values must play a vital part. While all denominations would have to contribute to that end, some seem better suited to the effort. Among the Christian religions, mainline Protestantism, long an extremely influential force, has lately been on the decline. Its membership is shrinking, and many of those who remain seem more committed to the promotion of certain political and social objectives than to traditional gospel values. Protestant evangelicals, meanwhile, display no lack of vigor. But their biblically based rhetoric does not lend itself well to reaching out to those who disagree with them; and the aggressiveness and zeal with which some fundamentalist leaders voice their views puts off many people who might otherwise be sympathetic.

Then there is the Catholic Church, which despite all its difficulties still possesses the size, structure, intellectual heritage and spiritual vitality to take the leading role. As the custodian of a long and sophisticated tradition of moral and political reasoning -- natural law theory -- Catholicism is especially well-equipped for this task. The categories of natural law are intelligible even to those who do not share the Church's religious presuppositions, and can thereby provide the sort of mediating language needed if the different subcultures within our pluralistic society are to communicate with each other.

Properly presented, the Christian message can hold considerable attraction for all Americans. John Paul must appeal directly to the populace's deepest yearnings and desires, ask them whether they feel called to something higher than hedonism. He must invite people to look inward and ask themselves if the wholeness and fulfillment they seek are not ultimately to be found in the love of God. And all the while he must stress the joys of the Christian life.

Writing six decades ago G.K. Chesterton remarked: "We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world." Since the Vatican II, Catholicism has found that it must bend a bit with the world if it is to move it. If John Paul presents the church's message in a manner and language adapted to the needs and sensitivities of modern Americans, he can leave a deep and lasting impression. The Catholic Church in America may yet become "a Church that will move the world."

William Gould, a doctoral candidate in government at Georgetown University, writes frequently on church affairs.