With the growth of Chile's mass protest movement, the Roman Catholic Church has shifted away from confrontation with the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and is emerging as a potential intermediary in the deepening crisis.

The powerful church organization long led attacks on the military's human rights violations and sheltered dissidents from Pinochet's repression. In turn, the government counterattacked with measures ranging from the arrest and expulsion of priests to the public harassment of bishops.

Following the inauguration in June of Archbishop Juan Francisco Fresno of Santiago, however, both state and church have appeared to seek a change in relations. Fresno has focused on calls for political dialogue and conciliation, and government leaders have viewed the church as a possible aid in pacifying political opposition.

Church leaders increasingly have placed themselves in the isolated middle ground between Pinochet and the alliance of political and labor leaders seeking his ouster. Fresno was the formal organizer and host of two meetings since August between political leaders and Interior Minister Sergio Onofre Jarpa, and the archbishop has worked to renew the negotiations following their suspension by the opposition Democratic Alliance.

On Monday, Fresno also appeared to defuse another potential crisis by successfully asking Pinochet to drop charges against popular dissident labor leader Rodolfo Seguel. Seguel, who was jailed by a judge after calling Pinochet a "fanatical dictator," had been reported to be in deteriorating health following 10 days of a hunger strike.

This active neutralism has established the church hierarchy as a potentially decisive influence in an increasingly polarized country, Chilean analysts say.

At the same time, this role has led to a subtle but vital battle over the course of the church's public policy.

Pinochet and government supporters evidently hope Fresno will rein in church activists in human rights and social movements and call for an end to five months of mass protests. The new archbishop is also under heavy pressure, however, from Santiago's priests and traditional church leaders to speak more forcefully against continuing military repression and in support of rights for the poor and a return to democracy.

"Fresno has been given the image of a more conciliatory figure, and the political conditions have changed," said Jorge Onoso, an organizer of the Christian Democratic Party who has worked extensively with church groups. "The hierarchy is more in the center, but on the lower levels, the church people are very committed to the common people. And those sectors are the ones carrying the protest."

The church's appearance as a pivotal political force has been mirrored to a lesser extent in the Chilean court system, where a new leadership figure, Supreme Court President Rafael Retamal, also took over this year and partially shifted the judiciary's image of unswerving pro-Pinochet alignment.

The courts' importance has increased as Pinochet's government, in an effort to improve its public image, has increasingly turned to formal legal processes to crack down on opponents. In the past three months, Retamal and several other judges have emerged as relatively independent arbiters of political conflicts, and Retamal has been seen by strategists of the opposition as a possible transitional president in the event of Pinochet's downfall.

For some Chilean analysts, the church and the judiciary may be the only institutions that could prevent a return to the violent national polarization of the early 1970s under the Socialist government of Salvador Allende. Then, the breakdown of church-sponsored talks between Allende and the opposition Christian Democratic Party and the courts' inability to resolve constitutional disputes were crucial in motivating the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power.

Since then, the church has only appeared to grow in importance in a country whose population of 11.5 million is overwhelmingly Catholic. Following the military government's ban on political activity and harsh repression of leftists, the church's Vicariate of Solidarity became Chile's authoritative human rights organization and its Academy of Christian Humanism sheltered hundreds of professionals and scholars fired from universities or persecuted by the government.

Under the charismatic Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, the church also took an activist role in labor groups and slum organization. "The result of all this is the church has a lot of influence in the poor districts," said Duncan Livingston, executive secretary of the Academy of Christian Humanism. "In all of the slums the church is looked on as a fellow traveler, the one institution that can be respected."

Until 1980, church groups were virtually the only open critics of the military government and Pinochet, although unable to break the church, often reacted harshly. Government officials organized regular attacks on church organizations in state-controlled media, and arrested, expelled and occasionally beat priests. By late last year, Pinochet was refusing requests to meet with the national Catholic bishops' council, which issued a statement in December calling for a rapid return to democracy.

The change in relations this year was shaped by the Vatican's naming in May of Fresno to replace the retiring Cardinal Silva and the eruption of mass antigovernment protests. Following unsuccessful efforts to repress the protest movement, Pinochet's government has sought to disarm it through a program of liberalization and measured progress toward democracy designed to win over key middle-class sectors.

In this effort, the government has seen Fresno, a 69-year-old conservative who worked for 16 years in the quiet mining center of La Serena, as a potential key. "Our prayers have been answered," said Pinochet's wife, Lucia, when Fresno was named.

Pinochet has since conspicuously cultivated the new archbishop. He attended Fresno's first mass on June 11, then invited the archbishop to lunch and sent him a Bible on his birthday. Progovernment media have heavily emphasized Fresno's repeated assurances that he has no interest in politics, and this month besieged him for several days before the last national protest in an effort to extract a comment on whether the demonstrations should be held.

This government strategy has allowed Fresno to carry out his own long-stated interest in promoting negotiations between Pinochet and his opposition. Fresno began the process by inviting Interior Minister Jarpa and Democratic Alliance leaders to his house, thus avoiding the need for one side to take the initiative.

A Chilean journalist specializing in the church said that although the talks appeared to strengthen Pinochet's government, Fresno "has been a disappointment to both the government and the opposition." While strongly deploring violence, Fresno has not yet taken a stand against the national days of protest and has endorsed the church organizations and hierarchy created by Cardinal Silva.

At the same time, the archbishop's style has raised opposition within the church. At one of the church's regular conventions in August, Santiago priests, speaking through formal committees, criticized Fresno for lowering the church's image as a defender of the poor and allowing the government to use him for political purposes, church sources said.

While formal relations between the church and government have improved, sharp conflicts continue on a lower level. Several priests in poor neighborhoods have been arrested and beaten in recent demonstrations, and the government recently sent a message to Fresno accusing 12 priests of antigovernment political activity, according to informed sources.

More activist bishops have sometimes acted when Fresno has not. Following violent government repression of demonstrations in August, Fresno made no public statement, but the Chilean bishops' conference declared that "unmeasured repression . . . must cease" and that "only a real and rapid movement toward true democracy can open the channels to avoid a tragedy of vast proportions."