Roman Catholic educators and theologians from across the country, who gathered at Catholic University yesterday at the request of Pope John Paul II, reacted with enthusiasm -- and hope -- to the pontiff's statement of strong support for academic freedom within the framework of the church's traditional teachings.

It was the theologians, in particular, who took encouragement from the pope's affirmation of their role as interpreters of scripture and religious tradition through the prism of history and culture.

"I think . . . he's giving clear direction to the Catholic scholarly community -- be vibrant, be strong, but stay within the bounds of the faith," said the Rev. Michael Scanlan, the president of the College of Steubenville in Ohio.

"One of the ways you can give freedom to academics is to say, 'Look, this is the context for your work,'" said the Rev. David B. Burrell, the chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame University.

Some educators said they understood John Paul to mean that while the church needs and supports the work of its thinkers, particularly in times of great change, theologians also must be aware that it is the hierarchy -- principally the bishops -- who decide church teaching. In interviews, some of the educators said they thought the pope called for increased collaboration between the bishops and theologians, who have often been at odds, and an awareness of what the pope called "the right of the faithful not to be troubled" by theories they are unable to evaluate.

"Theologians shouldn't carry their untested speculation too far into the marketplace," said Jude P. Dougherty, the dean of the school of philosophy at Catholic University for 13 years.

Dougherty, who said theologians were "not known for their common sense," argued that when they discuss controversial issues "they should stick to the academic lounge and stay in the professional journals."

Approximately 2,200 Catholic educational leaders, scholars and teachers, most of them in full academic dress, crowded into the university's field house early yesterday to hear the pope. Thousands of students, families, nuns and priests stood on the lawns outside the tightly secured building and listened quietly to the pope's words, broadcast on loudspeakers.

While John Paul's clear affirmation of the church's stand on some of its most troubling moral issues -- birth control, divorce, and celibacy, and the exclusion of women from the priesthood -- were lost on few of them, many of the educators said the pope seemed to acknowledge that there are differences in the church.

James Gallagher, a layman who is president of Mt. Aloysius College, a small Catholic school in Pennsylvania, said he felt the pope "did not eliminate the possibility of growth in thought and expansion of ideas."

"He's open to thoughtful . . . and maybe long, long, long range change," Gallagher said.

The pope's remarks on theologians were of particular significance to those at Catholic University, where 11 years ago, a number of their colleagues publicly voiced disapproval of Pope Paul VI'S encyclical banning the use of artificial means of birth control. Their statement, which advised Catholic couples to make their own decisions about contraception, eventually was supported nationally by about 600 Roman Catholic theologians and other teachers and scholars. But on the Catholic University campus, their action provoked a battle over academic freedom and led to a confrontation with the hierarchy.

Yesterday, the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a professor of moral theology at Catholic University and one of the dissenters in 1968, said he felt the pope had "strongly affirmed the importance of academic freedom and the responsibility of the theologian."

While the pope may be "quite conservative," Curran said, he has recognized that "there will continue to be discussion . . . in the church."

For the Catholic educators, Thomas Mastroianni, the dean of Catholic University's School of Music, said he thought the pope "stated rather clearly that our mission is . . . the idea of research and knowledge and faith and truth being compatible."

The pope's message, Mastroianni said, was that "the approach to truth is not in conflict with faith."