IN JUST TWO short years, Pope John Paul II has made himself one of the world's leading commentators on poverty and social justice. He has done this by visiting the places, mostly poor, where most of the world's Catholics live, by training his special qualities of perception and compassion directly on human suffering and by not flinching from the obligation to address the problems he has seen at first hand. Some have dismissed what he had said as largely parochial, or worse -- his refusal, for instance, to countenance the other than natural methods of family planning. But nothing touching the public interests of a religious community comprising nearly three-quarters of a billion people can be considered as parochial.

It is a tribute to his prestige that, everywhere this pope has gone, competing factions of both church and state have scanned his every utterance and gesture for a sign of favor. But these factions have often seemed to be trying to force him into categories foreign to his makeup. Nowhere has this been more evident than in his current trip to Brazil, at once the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, one known for having stinted the poor in its reach for economic growth, and one where local bishops and priests are in the vanguard of the struggle against the ruling military regime. The government has seemed eager to enlist the pope in its campaign against an activist clergy, while that part of the clergy has openly sought his support for its goal of confronting the government and forcing the pace of social change.

The more we see of this pope, however, the less certain we are that he can be made to march to any drum but his own. He has been making clear in Brazil his passion for social justice: reform or reap the whirlwind, he told the country's gathered elite on Sunday. But he has also been making clear his aversion to the clergy's involving itself in secular movements, especially Marxist movements, which, he believes, in the name of social idealism violate human dignity and nourish a "sterile and destructive" class war. One does not have to share John Paul's religion in order to respect his determination to keep it vital as a faith, not simply as a social gospel.

One does not have to be a Catholic, of course, to fight poverty. But one does not have to be a Marxist or a revolutionary either. That is what we take to be the burden of the pope's creed: peaceful change is the urgent need. The pope has his own "parochial" reasons for taking that position, but it is one the United States and other democratic countries can easily support for good reasons of their own.