A people virtually without political power, living for the most part on the impoverished fringes of an affluent society, Mexican-Americans long have turned to their Catholic faith for solace and support. Since the earliest settlement of the Southwest, they have closely adhered to the moral strictures laid down by the church's hierarchy, unquestioningly filling the Sunday Masses with the faithful and dipping into their often meager resources to build the region's cathedrals.

Thus 27 percent of the 49 million U.S. Roman Catholics today are Hispanic-Americans, who in the mid-1980s will become America's largest minority. In the Maerican Southwest, where the Mexican-American presence is so pervasive that they havae become a nationa within a nationa, nearly two-thirds of all Catholics are Mexican-Americans.

So there are implications for the larger society in the fact that some Mexican-Americans are beginning to see in the church yet another reflection of an Anglo domination that they believe controls everything from the political to the economic life of their community. This realization-which in some circles has led to the embrace of an anticapitalist "liberation theology"-is causing an unprecedented upheaval within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, perhaps the first major national institution to feel the full force of an emergent Mex-America.

The conflict came to the surface here last summer when a coalition of Mexican-American laity and clergy tried to have a Hispanic bishop appointed to the newly created diocese of San Bernardino, a city of 100,000 some 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Despite the dominance of the Spanish-surnamed in the diocese, the Vatican in September chose to appoint an Anglo (as Mexican-Americans refer to non-Hispanic whites), the Rev. Philip Straling, to the post over several Hispanic candidates.

That papal decision, which once would have been accepted passively, set off an unprecedented challenge to the church hierarchy that culminated in a rally by some 1,000 Hispanics, including Bishop Gilberto Chavez of San Diego and several other Mexican-American clergy. While Straling eventually was consecrated as a bishop, the insurgent spirit of that demonstration continues to mount as Mexican-Americans strive to take control over one of the most important institutions in their coummunity.

"The church's leaders here don't want to promote our growth, but are more interested in keeping command of the structure of the church," said the Rev. Peter Luque, a Hispanic priest from San Bernardino. "We see Anglo bishops riding in their big cars. They don't want to give time to our people. They don't care about preeching the gospel to all those people living under the avocado trees."

Hispanic leaders see in the issue of control over the church a major unifying force for their often disorganized, powerless community. Hispanics, by far the larges ethnic group among church members, easily surpassing the Irish or the Italians, concstitute 86 percent of the parishioners in Corpus Christi, 85 percent in Brownsville, Tex., and 80 percent in Sante Fe.

"Religion itself is the common denominator for uniting our people," said Dr. Armando Navarro, a community organizer in the barro of San Bernardino. "It is the one thing which cuts across class lines. There are Hispanic PhDs who are Catholic and campesinos [farm workers] who also are Catholics."

According to sources within the church, behind-the-scenes battles between the Anglo upper echelon and Hispanic laity and clergy are intensifying. One sorce, who asked not to be identified, said high-level churchmen in Los Angeles have worked to disassociate the church from such community groups as the United Neighborhoods Oragnization (UNO), a coalition organized largely by priests in the predominantly Mexican barrio of East Los Angeles.

Some Anglo clerics, according to this source, are fearful that organizations such as UNO in Los Angeles and Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS)m a similar group in San Antonio, are infused with the "theology of liberation," a doctrine developed by church leaders in Latin America that urges the church to work in opposition to the abuses of the capitalist system in the name of helping the poor.

But most Hispanic Catholic leaders insist their goals are no more revolutionary than molding the church to the needs and aspirations of its parishioners.

"For a long time they used us only when they needed people to make tortillas to raise money for the parish," said Bishop Juan Arzube of Los Angeles. "That does not give you much dignity. All we want is to bring a new leadership to the church. It's simply a matter of feeling, the way someone is brought up, customs that are so innate to a person that you can't put it all in words."

Despite the numbers of Hispanics in the church, only eight of the nation's 350 bishops are Hispanic. Out of 58,000 Roman Catholic priests nationwide, 585-slightly over 1 percent-are from Spanish-surnamed families.

Luque and other Mexican-American complain that the predominantly Irish and German church hierarchy is out of touch with the needs and aspirations of Hispanic Catholics. "We're not going to stop shouting. We're the largest Third World population living in the [Anglo] first world and we can't forget that," Luque said.

Already, a coalition between Hispanic laity groups and two organizations of Hispanic clergy-Los Padres and Las Hermanas, representing priests and nuns, respectively-is preparing to send a delegation to the conference of Latin American bishops scheduled to take place at Puebla, just outside Mexico City, on Jan. 27. The delegation, according to its organizers, will seek an audience with Pope John Paul II, who is making his first transatlantic appearance as pontiff.

This unusual request from insurgent Hispanic clergy and laity probably arises from the view of some Hispanic Catholics that they are entrusted with a mission different from, and perhaps even at odds with, that of the affluent rest of the Orman Catholic Church in the United States.

"These are two different communities; one lives in poverty and the other is wealthy and does not understand," said Gustavo Ramos, a community leader from Upland, just outside San Bernardino. "The church has treated us like children for a long time and now we don't take it. Eventually these communities will come together and there'll be a big clash."

Some Mexican-Americans believe this conflict is exacerbated by the lack of a large Hispanic clergy that speaks Spanish and understands the mentality of the people. Brother Trinos Snachez, a Jesuit who serves as executive director of the San Antoniobased Padres organization, believes Hispanics are not sufficiently encouraged by church leaders to enter the ministry in this country.

"Our people have been fooled by the image that the Mexican is too oversexed and not smart enough to go to the semnary," Sanchez, a native of Pontiac, Mich., said. "The church still has thi smissionary mentality where they would still rather bring the clergy in from Ireland to take care of us."

Sanchez believes this pattern encourages Hispanics to take a passive role in the decision-making processes of the church.

"I was talking to a Mexican-American sister in Nazareth, Tex., the other day and I saw two Mexican-American children come up and snuggle up to her and ask if she were a maid," he said. "They had been seen a Mexican sister before. This does not encourage an active role."

Despite these complaints, some church leaders insist progress is being made toward recognizing the increasingly predominant role of the Hispanics throughout the country. They point with pride to the fact that since 1970 the number of Hispanic bishops has climbed from zero to eight and that major efforts are being made to place Spanish-surnamed vicars in heavily Spanish dioceses.

"We're not perfect, but I think the bishops are dealing with the problem," said San Bernardino's Bishop Straling. "Out of all this pain has come a lot of awareness; a lot of good for the Hispanic people. Sure, anytime you have divisions there are bound to be bad effects and maybe some of the actions are a bit extreme, but at the end you do get at the problems."