GIOVANNI BATTISTA MONTINI, Pope Paul VI, who died at the age of 80 on Sunday at his summer residence outside Rome, was the most sophisticated of men. He was a diplomat, by years of training in the Vatican, and his particular mode of action - cautious, restrained, discreet, determined to move toward ultimate goals but as a stately pace - marked the political nature of his papacy. Laymen, especially those who are not Catholic themselves, are necessarily (and wisely) skittish about characterizing the matters of morals and faith in which a pope instructs and guides his flock. But the Vatican and its estimated 500 million communicants do not exist outside history or current political reality. And Paul's particular impact on the secular life around him is very much worth thinking about.

It was Paul's fate to become pope not just a time of enormous political, social, scientific and technological turmoil, but also in the aftermath of a papacy - that of John XXIII - that had abruptly and dramatically altered the course of that church on a broad range of vital subjects. Under John the church seemed to leap exuberantly and even incautiously into realms of 20th-century life and thought from which it had been coolly and deliberately distant before. Paul VI, inheritor of the change, and a diplomat concerned to keep that change positive from the church's point of view and under some degree of restraint and control, thus presided over what you might call a measured revolution.

The added degree of internal "democracy" (the word is not precise, but it will have to do) in church affairs, the diplomatic openings of the church to the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglican churches and to the secular institutions of Marxism, the steps toward making more international the highest councils of Rome, the attempt to revitalize the church's relationship with the politics of the working class, the modernization of many traditional church practices and the elimination of others - all this had been set in motion when Paul ascended to the papal throne.

That his "success" was limited in accommodating bedfrock belief and ecclesiastical practice to the pressures of contemporary life is evident. The loss of the divorce referendum in Italy several years ago marked a drastic setback for the idea of Catholic primacy in the politics of that country - and since that time the Vatican (via the late Aldo Moro, the pope's close friend) had been reduced to trying to stall of and/or limit the damage of a Communist presence in government. The rebellion of conservative clergy and parishioners against some of the liturgical and other reforms of the Second Vatican Council, coupled with the disappointment of Catholics at the other end of the spectrum with the slow and partial nature of much change they regarded as essential, attest to both the intractable nature of the problems Paul faced and his mixed record in resolving them. We ourselves, speaking from outside the church and, surely, to no one's surprise, would rank as our greatest disappointment Paul's refusal to alter his views on birth control.

Even so, and despite the fact that other Catholics around the world challenged Paul's views on this, we believe his traditionalism on birth control and related family and marital concerns sprang not from any social insensitivity or blindness to human needs, but rather from a profound desire to relate what he took to be the church's fundamental laws and precepts to the turbulent would in which the church must live. His impassioned pleas for peace and for social justice, and his gestures toward those peoples and churches that had for so long been outside the realm of Vatican cordiality or exchange, were witness to his concern for the life of all. Pope Paul did too much in the eyes of some and too little in the eyes of others. But no one can deny that he maintained the vitality and strength of his church in a time of great social stress.