As a Christian going among the lions, Pope John Paul II can expect his views to get a mauling when he visits the generals and admirals of Argentina in a few days. The dictators are known to cultivate religious tastes that the pope isn't likely to satisfy.

It was only three years ago that the religion of the Argentine junta was on public display in the United States. Celebrating their country's national day with a mass at St. Matthew's cathedral here, the military men and others from the Argentine Embassy were as pious as Fra Angelico's cherubs--until the priest spoke. His sermon took the teachings of the church on social justice and contrasted them, in general terms, with the government-sanctioned violence and terror in Argentina. The priest quoted John Paul II.

Halfway through the sermon, the military men walked out. They were enraged to have their prayer time disturbed by a priest mixing, in their minds, politics and religion.

It's doubtful that the Argentines will be this brazen when the pope is before them. But unless John Paul calls for a special blessing on the Argentine military and its weapons--perhaps a leading of the rosary to Our Lady of the Exocet Missiles--Gen. Galtieri and his gang are likely to be offended.

A posturing of righteousness comes naturally to the junta. With Catholicism as the state religion, the military has never been short of bishops to back its war against political dissidents, even when priests and nuns have been murdered. The new war against the British has brought forth the clergy to lead public prayers. On "Army Day" on May 29, a military chaplain warmed up the crowd before Gen. Galtieri's speech by asking God's help that "our soldiers not vacillate in combat" and that they "will die with smiles on their lips as did the martyrs and saints."

The problem for the pope is that Argentina has been among the last of the Latin American countries to understand, much less accept, the church's teaching on human rights, social reforms and peace. Latin America has any number of heroic bishops who have defied dictatorships--Arns of Brazil, Silva of Chile, Romero of El Salvador, Camara of Brazil--but the Argentine hierarchy is dominant with court chaplains. Conversions are unwelcome. Soon after the 1976 coup, Bishop Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja criticized the human rights performance of the new government. He was killed in a car crash believed to be set up by an assassination team.

Even before the Galtieri junta picked a fight with Britain, Argentina had little use for the Vatican's peacemaking. A Vatican proposal to resolve the smoldering Argentine-Chilean dispute over islands in the Beagle Channel has yet to be accepted by the junta. It isn't beyond the Argentine military, should its machismo be disgraced by a defeat against the British, to go into battle against Chile in the Beagle Channel to seek a consolation prize.

The pope goes to Argentina from a weak position. His trip to Britain was a pastoral event planned before the South Atlantic war. But by adopting an equal-time standard, John Paul can't help but comfort the junta. His visit gives the appearance that he elevates Argentina's South Atlantic violence to a legitimate political tactic. Like all dictators, the ones in Buenos Aires crave the prestige of respectability. A papal visit provides it. The junta can ask: if we are so corrupt, as a few subversives keep saying, then why is the Holy Father praying with us, why does he come so far to be with us while our sons are dying like "martyrs and saints?"

This is no government that understands distinctions. The pope can explain that he is a shepherd who loves the sinner but hates the sin. But the generals have as much chance of grasping that idea as an illiterate gaucho on the pampas has of understanding the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The pope, representing peace, can be expected to be as rebuffed by Galtieri as he was by Margaret Thatcher. He appealed to her for a cease-fire. But she dismissed him. She did it in stately language--in the British way--and that may be the difference in Buenos Aires. The generals believe in crude dismissals.