FOR AT LEAST the day he spent in each of the

countries on his Central American and Caribbean itinerary, Pope John Paul II focused the common attention on the issue of decency in public life. This was not all he did: he also raised issues of parochial concern, some of them--the role of priests, the attitude toward evangelicals--with plain political implications. But the emphasis on decency dominated his Latin progress, and except perhaps in democratic Costa Rica and Belize, it put him in collision with the reigning political authorities--all of whom run more or less unjust and indecent orders. The particulars of the collision constituted the "news" at each stop along the way.

In Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua, the only place where the authorities chose to confront him rather than try to coopt him or snuggle in under his wing, John Paul stood firm and, by his hosts' choice, ended up sharpening the conflict between church and state and among the divided local Catholics. In Guatemala, he threw his weight to the side of those who have been brutalized by the Rios Montt regime, which had replied to his arrival-eve request to stay the death sentences on six prisoners by executing them. In El Salvador, where all sides had hoped to take political nourishment from his visit, he gave major though not exclusive reinforcement to the idea of "dialogue" among those now at war with each other.

How many divisions has the pope? The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, once put the question. The answer is, plenty. That was why the cynical and calculating Stalin asked: the context of his query was the then- and still-live issue of whether Catholic opposition would be mobilized against his designs in postwar Eastern Europe. In the current Central Amercan circumstances, it cannot be doubted that the disintegration of the old authority structures has let loose a great force of moral passion, and that the different political elements are vying to harness and possess it, or to neutralize it.

John Paul is a remarkable pilgrim, one who seems compelled to close with the most difficult and painful tests being experienced by his flock. Each time he leaves Rome he projects an overwhelming sense of the interrelatedness of the spiritual and the political. In Central America he made the prize of peace sweeter and more urgent and necessary to win.