AN EXTRAORDINARY TENSION had built up even bofore Pope John Paul II began his current visit in Latin America, where half the world's 700 million Roman Catholics live. How would this man, who has emanated a faith crackling with potential for vibrant political expression, perform in his first official trip Abroad? Would he reinforce or would he check the "theology of liberation," the name given to the divisive effort within the Latin church to make common cause with the region's disinherited against punblic and private power? How would a pope schooled in defending the claims of the church against a Marxist state, in his native Poland, meet the tendency of some anti/state elements in the Latin church to accept a Marxist analysis of society's woes?

In the event, the pope seems to have confounded many of those who heard his words to the Latin hierarchy at the Mexican city of Puebla.The framework in which he spoke did not precisely correspond to that in which the questions had been raised. True, he invoked "this vast and demanding imperative of social morality." Yet he pointedly questioned the picture of Jesus "as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth." The church, he went on, should "preach, educate individuals and collectivities, form public opinion, and offer orientations to the leaders of the peoples. In this way [the church] will be working in favor... of a more just and equitable also in the world in general.... "

Not surprisingly, the pope's general message was quickly labelled as conservative, as emphasizing the pastoral over the social, as "disappointing" to liberals. It was, some suggested, the inevitably flat product of a filed effort to apply in a Third-World context an aaproach created to serve the different circumstances of an Iron Curtain church. Others saw it as the bland result of a misguided attempt to reconcile the Latin Catholic right and left. No doubt othe rexplanations will come along.

We would, however, caution against accepting any of them too quickly. Few people anywhere are better placed than John Paul to sift the different definitions and uses of power. He knows the power the church commands to challenge secular authorityu, especially in countries like Mexico (and Poland) where the masses profess Catholicism and their faith runs deep. To him, the legitimate demands are spriritual, bearing on human dignity. A great many things, however, bear on human dignity: "freedon, the righr to profess one's religion, physical and mental integrity, the right to essential goods, to life...." There is a "social and political level" on which human beings have a "right of participation." Thought the church's mission is "religious and not social or political, it cannot fail to consider man in the entirety of his being...."

The day after the pope spoke at Puebla, he had an encounter with the poor at Oaxaca, and castigated landoweners who "hide the bread needed by so many families." He denounced such practices as "not fair, not humane, not Christain. " So much for the suggestion that John Paul is going "right." His manner suggests to us that, no less now in the wider world than earlier in Poland, he means for the church to be involved in the central spiritual and secular concerns of all professing the faith.