The devout and the curious who converge on the Mall this afternoon will have to depend on Divine Providence, luck or human civility for a look at the pope, but an elite group of Catholics had their moment with the Holy Father yesterday at the White House, and with considerably less bother.

As presidential receptions go, the two-part gathering on the North and South lawns was crushingly large. In all, some 10,000 people, not all of them Catholics, attended. But in a nation with a Catholic population of 54 million, the selectivity suggests that those on the White House guest list claiming church membership represent the Chosen People of John Paul's American flock.

This coming together of the church's lustrous and influential prompts an examination of the remarkable acceptability that Catholics now enjoy in the larger secular society. It also raises a number of questions about the nature of contemporary American Catholicism.

Do Catholics who lead powerful corporations look to papal social teaching for guidance in the making of boardroom decisions? In the homes of Catholics blessed with wealth and prominence, is the Bible read and respected? Does the ancient faith elicit sacrifices or suffering, or self-denial of any sort? Do rich Catholics tithe to the poor, not just until it hurts but after it hurts?

The privileges and esteem heaped on so many political, professional and social leaders who happen to Catholic -- as opposed to Catholics who happen to be leaders -- create a tension; Can membership in a spiritual institution grounded in other-worldly concerns be squared with allegiance to a system of secular values?

Throughout much of its American experience, the demands of faith and tradition obliged the Catholic Church to think of itself as set apart from the national power pageant. In 1885, though, Pope Leo XIII'S encyclical "Immortale Dei" specified the mission of individual believers in the world of man, signaling the end of Catholic insularity. "All Catholics," wrote Leo, "should do all in their power to cause the consitutions of states and legislatures to be modeled on the principles of the true church.

In America, this call to action heartened the faithful -- and alarmed many in the non-Catholic majority. As recently as 1960, when his friend Richard Nixon was seeking the presidency, Billy Graham argued that the candidacy of John F. Kennedy presented "certain problems for Protestants because the Roman Catholic Church is not only a religious institution but also a secular institution with its own ministers and ambassadors."

However, there is little evidence that many Catholics successful in the secular world see themselves as "ministers and ambassadors" of their church or are perceived as such by others.

Hyman Bookbinder, the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, says that "compared with 30 or 40 years ago, I no longer think of Catholics as part of a monolith. It's much better now. A person's Catholicism has become irrelevant to me. I mean that in a positive way. I can deal with him straightforwardly."

Rev. James T. Burtchaell, a Holy Cross priest who directs the center for continuing education at the University of Notre Dame, distinguishes between the universal church and the American church. "Internationally, Catholics are becoming remarkably identifiable in their opposition to totalitarian governments," he says.

Burtchaell believes that in the United Sates Catholics "have tried to be good Americans. The enternals of faith that once set us apart in noticeable ways have in many instances vanished; birth control, meatless Fridays, Sunday mass, the Latin in the liturgy, The sociologists used to love Catholics because we were so measurable."

The hierarchy wonders about other things. The National Catholic Reporter recently wrote about the charges of some bishops that Catholics are "theologically illiterate" and know little about their Catholicism.

The bishops are probably right, but illiteracy seems less the problem than simple confusion. More shiftings in attitude have occurred within the American church in the past 15 years than in any previous period since pious English Catholics fled persecution at home to establish their church's foothold in English-speaking America two centuries ago in present-day Maryland.

The small furor stirred by John Paul's views on women's ordination is proof that if there is still a Catholic religion in America there is no longer a unified Catholic culture.

Other signs are easily noticed.

In past centuries, such open dissent would have been denounced as the work of heretics. Differences led to outright achisms and ignited barbaric religious wars. Today, the church has spats and skirmishes instead A recent one involved the Catholic Standard, the Washington archdiocese's weekly newspaper, and Georgetown University's Jesuit president, the Rev. Timothy Healy, who had requested that the Catholic formulary -- the sign-of-the-cross -- be dropped at campus gatherings attended by non-catholics.

This was out of order, wrote the Standard's editor, veteran Catholic journalist Dale Francis. He argued that it was falso ecumenism for Georgetown to forsake something so basically Catholic as the sign-of-the-cross.

Francis, who has seen universtiy presidents come and go in a career that stretches back to the 1930s when he was an organizer of the Newspaper Guild along with Heywood Hale Brown, describes himself as a newspaper man doing Catholic newspaper work." He acknowledges that Catholics are doing well in American life. But he isn't comfortable about what he sees as the tendency of successful Catholics to restrict the expressions of their faith.

"We haven't impressed upon the laity that their mission is to bring their principles of faith to the world," he says. "Large numbers of Catholics think that participation in the church must be in churchy things -- like being lectors at mass or ministers at communion. But it's more than that. Participation in the church has to mean participation in the world -- as Catholics."

The achievement and participation in the man-made world that Leo XIII called for have become less institutional and more personal. Professing the faith in such small things as supporting some of the Catholic intellectual journals would be quite enough in the minds of some.

Peter Steinfels, the editor of Commonweal, a left-leaning biweekly that pushes along on with a circulation of less than 25,000, said in an interview in the current National Catholic Reporter that "the Catholic community is well-educated enough, affluent enough, that it ought to be able to support an intellectual journal of the same quality and same influence as say, the neoconservative journals. 'Commentary' or 'Public Interest' . . .I don't know whether it's because of the traditional Catholic reliance on the hierarchy, or what. There simply hasn't been a willingness among laity to support such endeavors."

In the end, that is much the question about the elite of American Catholicism: What endeavors do they support? The answer is probably best found in looking at the trade-off that has occurred in the past century. The Catholic outsiders of the 1870s have become the American insiders of the 1970s.

A century ago, secular society looked at an individual's Catholicism first and his actions second. Today, with secular power in the hands of Catholics in all professions, society looks at the actions first, and only occasionally at the Catholicism, if at all.