Catholicism and Marxism, on a collision course for most of the 20th century, are coexisting nicely at a small, recently nationalized university in this capital of northern Ethiopia.

The Marxist government of Ethiopia took over Asmara University, a small Catholic college with 300 students, two years ago and has rapidly expanded it. The university now has 18,000 students and a compulsory course in Marxism-Leninism, but it still has 10 teaching nuns from the Italian-based Comboni order.

And it gets $25,000 in annual support from the Vatican.

Sister Menna Ghebremedhi, who studied for four years at Georgetown and Howard universities in Washington, is head of the social science department under which the course, Introduction to Marxian Thinking, is taught.

With a broad smile, she noted that "no sisters are qualified to teach the course in Marxism." Some had previously taught moral science as a Catholic-oriented course, but that subject has been discontinued.

"We are here to serve the people, not to preach the gospel," the Ethiopian nun said.

Mebrahtu Negusse, business manager of the university, acknowledged the anomaly, calling it a "marvelous coexistence." He added, however, that "the Ethiopian government needs teachers at present and is making use of the nuns. Because the Comboni Sisters founded the university they feel committed to its success."

One nun who is involved in charitable work elsewhere in Asmara is studying for a degree at the university and is currently enrolled in the Marxism class.

The lecturer, Tsgaye Woldegiorgis, said she is "very active" in the course. "But there's a difference," he added, "in what she believes and what she writes."

"Are we required to believe everything we study?" Sister Menna asked.

Business manager Mebrahtu asked, "What grade would she get if she wrote what she believed?"

Tsgaye answered, "an F."

After the Marxist lecturer and the Catholic professor posed for a picture in front of a painting of the Last Supper, Sister Menna insisted that another shot be taken in front of a picture "of our leader," Chairman Mengistu Haile-Mariam.

A final pose was done in front of pictures of Marx, Engels and Lenin, Ethiopia's "new trinity," with a picture of the Virgin Mary nearby.

Sister Francesca Mariani, the university registrar, said:

"It is good to know all philosophies." She hastily added, "I prefer my own."