By issuing its new "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" today, the Vatican seeks to clarify the church's often debated role in the imperfect and frequently oppressive temporal world in which its clergy in the field must live and work.

The new instruction, unveiled today by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, emphasized that support for the poor and opposition to injustice are part of traditional Catholic doctrine, not a new church concern. It seems destined to be the theological bench mark against which future church involvement in the temporal world is judged by the Vatican.

Issuance of the document, the promised follow-up on a 1984 instruction about the controversial liberation theology that has upset Vatican traditionalists in recent years, comes at a critical time. After successful church-supported revolts against such dictators as Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Vatican seems to be struggling with formulating a new policy to deal with unjust political systems and governments without sacrificing its primary spiritual focus.

In recent months, church leaders and lay people have taken visible roles in political activity in Chile, where the church supports human rights activists; South Korea, where many priests back an opposition political campaign; and Nicaragua, where the archbishop of Managua has been outspoken in his criticism of the Sandinista government.

What today's new instruction seeks to do is enshrine a new form of Vatican-approved and -defined liberation theology that in certain basic ways curbs and limits the original form as developed and applied in Latin America. As one Latin American bishop here who wished not to be quoted by name said today: "We now have two liberation theologies: a Vatican-laundered version and the original, disapproved one."

The necessity of a new, clear-cut Vatican approach to the temporal world has been growing ever since the reformist Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s came out heavily in favor of a greater concern by the Catholic Church about the injustices, poverty and oppression of many of its 800 million believers.

The social and economic message of the Second Vatican Council, along with its insistence on greater church collegiality, or local participation in decision making, has sparked generations of activist priests, nuns and lay people who believe that the gospel should be practiced in the streets as well as in the church.

Nowhere has that been more evident, and more worrisome to traditionalists at the Vatican, than in Latin America. Between 1968 and 1978, militant priests, fired by the poverty and oppression in much of the continent and encouraged by their interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, developed a theology of liberation that openly expressed the need for the church to make what is called a preferential option in favor of the poor.

Priests, inspired by this new theology, have broken new ground in Latin America and elsewhere. They increased grass-roots church activity through formation of local "base communities," aligned the church with the struggle for human rights and social and economic justice, and distanced the church from its traditional alliance with the continent's wealthy rulers. Liberation theology also gave rise to the participation in politics of priests in Nicaragua, the decision of other priests to join guerrilla movements in Colombia and Central America and, to the great displeasure of a pope like John Paul II from Poland, the increasing fusion of Catholic and Marxist doctrine.

Almost from the moment he assumed the papacy in 1978, John Paul II has sought to curb the extremes of liberation theology, which he called "deviations," without abandoning his often-expressed concerns for human rights and social and economic justice.

Priests who had taken political offices were ordered to resign and those, including four priests in the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, who refused have been disciplined by having their priestly functions suspended. Theologians like Brazil's Leonardo Boff who have gone too far by Vatican standards have been called on the carpet by Cardinal Ratzinger, the powerful head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith. Boff was disciplined last year with a year of silence, which was suspended a week ago as a gesture toward the Brazilian church, which has generally supported him.

The pope intensified his effort to curb what he saw as liberation theology clerics' excessive involvement in temporal affairs in 1984 with Ratzinger's first instruction on the subject, which attacked liberation theology for its inclusion in certain cases of "concepts borrowed from Marxist thought" and its efforts to deal with temporal problems separately from spiritual ones.

The new liberation theology unveiled by Ratzinger today laid heavy emphasis on the church's traditional concern for the poor and its stand in favor of what the document repeatedly called "Christian freedom and liberation."

True liberation, according to the document, can only come when it is linked to faith in Christ. Thus individual liberty that seeks to separate itself from the church offers nothing but anarchy and a new form of slavery, as does any form of collectivism, a clear reference to the communism the church has long opposed.

While repeating its opposition to the open involvement of the clergy in politics, the new instruction affirms that the "church does not hesitate to condemn situations of life which are injurious to man's dignity and freedom." This condemnation, the Vatican document proclaimed, can be extended to "systems" that do not represent and respect Christian human ideals.

Systems built on "unjust structures" need "to be changed," the document continues. "It is, therefore, perfectly legitimate that those who suffer oppression on the part of the wealthy or the politically powerful should take action, through morally licit means, in order to secure structures and institutions in which their rights will be truly respected."

The document repeatedly emphasizes the need for such "licit means" over any illicit, or violent, means even though it recognizes that the "last resort" armed struggle is allowed by church teaching.

"Systematic recourse to violence put forward as the necessary path to liberation has to be condemned as a destructive illusion and one that opens the way to new forms of servitude," the document adds. Revolution and class struggle are also rejected in favor of reformist actions for justice and "social solidarity."

Seeming to refer to the model of the Catholic Church in the Philippines in supporting the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in February, the new church guidelines openly advocate change through peaceful civil disobedience or passive resistance.

"Because of the continual development of the technology of violence and the increasingly serious dangers implied in its recourse," the document states, "that which today is termed 'passive resistance' shows a way more comfortable to moral principles and having no less prospects for success."

According to church liberals here, the new document is an effort by the church to co-opt the theology of liberation by embracing it and redefining it in ways more acceptable to the pope and the Vatican hierarchy. They reportedly have been upset at some of the directions liberation theology has taken and, until now, the Vatican's seeming lack of control over some of the political stances of local bishops, priests and nuns.