Pope John Paul II told Nicaragua's Roman Catholic archbishop last week that the primary duty of a priest is "to evangelize," but there is no indication so far that the Vatican plans an outright ban on clerical involvement in politics in this country, where many of the top officials are priests.

The recent papal directive that forced two U.S. priests to withdraw from congressional campaigns is a chief topic of discussion, at least informally, here as Roman Catholic bishops from throughout Latin America are meeting to discuss church affairs.

The meeting had been scheduled months ago to discuss the implication of an earlier bishops' gathering at Puebla, Mexico.

Revolutionary priests played a major role in the overthrow of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza here last year and now several hold high government positions, including two major cabinet ministries.

Many of these say they hope and expect that the pope will recognize Nicaragua and other developing Latin American countries as special situations having extraordinary needs and that, as a result, they will not be faced with having to chose between obeying the pope and continuing what they consider a necessary ministry in political life.

"There is an internal conflict being generated in the church here that one day is going to explode," said Edgard Parrales, a Catholic priest who holds an influential post in Nicaragua's leftist revolutionary government. "The Vatican is making a mistake in Latin America and Latin America will break the Vatican."

Parrales reflects a growing militancy on the part of many clerics in Central and South America who believe passionately in the combination of moral and political power they have gained in the last 10 years. Many have grown used to revolution and some have grown accustomed to being revolutionaries.

But nowhere more than Nicaragua is the clergy so intimately and publicly involved with the process of revolution.

Many actively supported the Sandinista guerrilla movement that overthrew Somoza. At least one priest, Spanish Jesuit Gaspar Garcia, was killed in combat after he took up arms against Somoza's national guard.

Now many of these revolutionary clerics are part of the Nicaraguan government. The foreign minister is a Maryknoll priest, Miguel D'Escoto. The minister of culture is a priest, poet and Marxist, Ernesto Cardenal. His brother, Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit, is head of the country's literacy campaign. Parrales is deputy director of the country's Social Security Institute.

Other priests have high positions with the Ministry of Economic Planning and the Social Security Institute. One is a member of the Council of State, and several more are in consultative positions with the government.

For many of these clerics, a papal ban on political activity would present a tremendous moral problem. Friends of D'Escoto, who is in Yugoslavia for the funeral of President Tito, say that he is particularly concerned "because he is a very pious man who is also very idealistic about the new Nicaragua."

While some, like Parrales, feel that a confrontation with Rome is overdue, other priests in Nicaragua's government, like Fernando Cardenal, say they hope the pope will recognize Nicaragua's special situation.

When Nicarraguan Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo visited the Vatican last week, the pope told him in no uncertain terms that the primary duty of a priest is "to evangelize."

Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's diplomatic representative here, enlarging on this, said that "the attitude of the church in regard to these affairs is that the specific role of the priest is to be an evangelizer and not a politician. But political roles can be justified in a temporary manner in special circumstances."

Since 1966, according to church officials here, the Vatican has required priests who take political posts to obtain permission first from their local bishops.

There are mechanisms through which local conferences of priests can make an initial decision on the participation of one of their colleagues in a government post, but in recent weeks the pope has made it clear that as a general rule he is against active political roles for Catholic clergy.

Now as Pope John Paul and Rome's Catholic hierarchy exert increasing pressure on priests to withdraw from secular politics, the senior members of the Church are finding themselves confronted with clergy who, in some cases at least, are willing to challenge the authority of the Vatican itself.

The revolutionary clerics of this area, building on the "theology of liberation" first articulated by the Latin American Bishops' Conference more than a decade ago, have increasingly taken the side of the poor in a region where the poor often have been a brutally oppressed majority. In recent years that has meant for many priests advocacy of radical, in some cases violent, social economic and political change.

The distinction between their "moral option for the poor," endorsed by Rome, and their political activities with revolutionary movements is often a narrow one. The more the Vatican tries to draw a definitive line, the greater the division within the Church on each side of it.

In the bloody conflicts of El Salvador, for instance, many priests have taken a leading role in challenging the authority of the ruling economic and political elite. Yet at the same time some of the more conservative bishops in that country have been denouncing the clergy who took such a stand.

El Salvador's oligarchy has gone further than denunciation. Over the past few years seven priests have been assassinated. In March, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, one of the most respected voices for peaceful but radical change in the area, was gunned down while saying mass. None of El Salvador's conservative bishops attended Romero's funeral.

Clergy have been targets of terror as well in Guatemala, where this week a Filipino priest working with a U.S. missionary group was kidnaped.

In Brazil priests and some bishops have been at odds with their conservative colleagues and Rome over their liberal political activities and in virtually every Latin American country the "theology of liberation" has its committed clerical partisans.

A problem here is that Nicaragua is short on competent technocrats to fill some of the administrative government positions now held by highly educated priests.

Vatican representative Sambi suggested that this may provide sufficient cause for the priests to remain in their offices at the moment. "But our concern is to form a body of laymen who can take on these responsibilities, not to substitute ourselves," Sambi said.

Some of Latin America's most influential clergymen, however, are reacting strongly against what they see as the political excesses of revolutionary priests, especially in Nicaragua.

Bonaventura Kloppenberg, director of the theological seminary of the Latin American Bishops Conference in Columbia, said here that there is a fear of "a beginning in Nicaragua of a certain leftist clericalism."

Kloppenberg noted that many of the same priests who complained bitterly of clerical collusion with past Nicaraguan governments are now active members of this one. "This seems condemnable to me," he said.

Ultimately, according to one influential Central American bishop, some priests may have to make the decision either to leave the church or to leave the government.