The Catholic Church of the Philippines is increasingly divided over the twin questions of sanctioning violence in response to martial law abuses and cooperating with the armed wing of the country's Communist Party.

According to church officials, many priest are seeking approval of armed resistance to the Philippine military and are urging open cooperation with Communist guerrillas in remote provinces, despite reports of troops killing citizens suspected of aiding the insurgents.

In interviews this week, two Catholic bishops and several priests described cases in which a half dozen priests have slipped away to join the Communist underground and others openly argue for a "Marxist option" in meetings of the laity and clergy.

"The whole idea of violence is in the air," said Bishop Francisco Claver from Bukidnon Province in the southern main island of Mindanao. "Two priests now argue for an opening to the Marxist option. They say we should go with the people who have the power and that is the people with guns. They ask what is the alternative under martial law."

Bishop Federico Escaler from north Cotabato Province, also in Mindanao, has adopted a policy of providing food, clothing and shelter to Communist guerrillas who recently moved into his area. He said he has refused demands of local military officers that he inform them of instances of giving aid to the guerrillas.

"We will continue to give assistance to them just as we would to government soliders who ask for it," the bishop said.

The clergy's new militancy and the question of sanctioning violent resistance has troubled the church hierarchy in Asia's only Catholic country. r

Cardinal Jaime Sin said in an interview that he does not regard the issue as a seirous problem, although he acknowledges that some priests have begun to insist there is no alternative to violence in the face of military abuses in rural sections.

Four months ago, however, the issue became so prominent that a conference of bishops was called to examine the church's teachings on violence. cThey concluded it with an "exhortation against violence" which declared that violence is banned in Christian theology except under certain "very strict conditions."

However, the exhortation also recognized that in conditions of mass poverty and deprivation of human rights "it is not surprising that 'the temptation to violence' should trouble many." It referred not only to Communist guerrillas but to "many committed Christians" who believe their faith and sense of justice commit them to solidarity with victims of injustice.

"We cannot solve these problems through violence," said Sin. "Some of our priests are thinking that there is no alternative but armed struggle. We have made it clear that that cannot be. We must save people from poverty but we also have a duty to save them from guilt."

The cardinal said, however, that some acts of civil disobedience advocated by priests and bishops could be sanctioned and he specifically endorsed the widespread practice of refusing to inform on guerrillas who seek food and shelter from the church. "Freedom," he said, "is a gift of God."

The issue has been elevated to a principal church concern by growing evidence of military abuse of civilians in remote areas where the Communist New People's Army is active. The army is regarded as a small force of about 3,000 to 5,000 armed guerrillas but it has spread its area of operation in recent years from northern Luzon to the western island of Samar and to many places in Mindanao.

The guerrillas force recruits followers in many sections by promising armed protection for farmers victimized by the military and large corporations. There are many documented cases of undisciplined troops responding by killing citizens suspected of harboring fugitives.

Bishop Claver cites a recent case in which three farmers were seized for cooperating with Communists in central Mindanao. "They just disappeared," he said. "We found their graves later.

Bishop Escaler said a church lay leader was beaten and left for dead by masked men in military combat gear. In another case, soldiers surrounded and fired on the home of a farmer suspected of cooperating with subversives, killing his wife.

In none of these, or several similar cases the two bishops have documented, were any military personnel punished, they said.

The Philippine military authorities have said they act to discipline abusive soldiers, but not until a celebrated case last summer was there concerted action at the top.

After two church laymen were slain by soldiers and a 14-year-old boy tortured near the city of Davao, one of the church's most conservative, progovernment leaders, Archbishop Antonio Mabutas, issued an angry pastoral letter denouncing the military.

A high-level commission headed by Assistant Defense Minister Carmelo Barbero investigated and two officers were transferred and 12 enlisted men punished with imprisonment. Barbero has promised to investigate other cases and punish military offenders.