The visit of Pope John Paul II was anticipated with suspicion among liberals both within and without the Catholic Church. In three cities -- Boston, Philadelphia and Washington -- secularists were on the march to stop him and his hosts from making use of public monies and public places.

Some of the objections were right: Philadelphia's Mayor Frank Rizzo was out of line in providing an altar at taxpayers' expense. But that is a small thing to get livid about in this golden age of boondoggles. It is just that when religion asserts itself, some people sniff the presence of an ancestral enemy, and react as a Hatfield to a McCoy.

Catholic liberals aren't jubilant about John Paul's visit either. Scholar-journalist Garry Wills, writing in New York magazine, uses words like "disturbing," "old-fashioned," "theocratic," "right-wing," "rigid," "self-defeating" and "anachronistic" to convey his sense that this pope is unfit to lead the Church of What's Happening Now. He quotes an Italian politician who complains that John Paul, unlike Paul VI, has "no doubts at all" about his role in the world, a state of certitude he finds downright "scary."

That politician is also a "Marxist." Now, Marxists aren't noted for self-doubt about their own role in the world, but that is only one of the ironies that eludes Wills. The deeper one is that liberal Catholics see nothing peculiar about attacking the pope in secular media, and citing communist authorities to buttress their points. An article like that illustrates the plight of religion in America: Catholic liberals gain respectability among secular liberals by denouncing the pope -- for being insufficiently liberal.

Modernity is secular. Its public life is not based on faith. That doesn't mean it is anti-religious. But it does mean that the modern believer lives with a complexity unknown to the generations that could count on the social, legal and political authority of religion.

Pre-modern man was bound to the faith of his fathers. Modern man may find that his forefathers had many faiths -- and that his own father has none. As sociologist Peter Berger puts it, "What previously was fate now becomes a set of choices. Destiny is transformed into decision." Where there is no public orthodoxy, the individual must find his own "religious preference."

Establishing one's religious identity in this milieu is -- let's face it -- a strain. Any choice puts you in a minority, makes you a heretic. If there is any orthodoxy today, it is liberal secularism -- which can't countenance claims of religious truth. As a result, amny people try to hold on to the forms of religion while avoiding a real showdown with unbelief. Either they take the liberal way, and try to mute the "scandal" of dogma with ecumenical politics; or they take a conservative route, and translate religious ties into ethnic ties.

Either approach risks implying that religion has no value or even character of its own. Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner, writing in National Review, argues that many American Jews have lost the positive content of their faith, and that the current emphasis on the Nazi holocaust is a sign of this. For many Jews, Auschwitz has replaced Sinai as the defining reality of Jewish identity.

This in effect allows Hitler rather than Moses to define Jewishness. Surely it means more to be a Jew than to be a victim. The meaning of the Jewish faith has to be sought in the inwardness of Judaism, not the perceptions of outsiders -- whether the outsiders are anti-Semites or well-meaning liberals.

So with other faiths. I admire the priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley, but I am afraid that his idea of the "communal Catholic," with its stress on anti-Catholic discrimination, reduces religion to sociology: it forgets that what matters about martyrs is less their suffering than the truths their suffering affirms.

That is what is so exciting, I think, about John Paul II: he is felt to be a reminder that religious "preference" has to be subordinate to religious truth. He stands not for a pre-modern faith, but for the vitality of faith in modernity.