Despite words of caution from Pope John Paul II about staying out of politics, the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines now enjoys such high prestige that it can hardly avoid being consulted on political matters.

The church played a key role in the ouster of former president Ferdinand Marcos, and the people and new rulers of Asia's only predominantly Catholic nation now look to clergymen for advice more than ever before.

While clergymen are assuming a generally lower profile now, they still lead in the effort to get Communist-led insurgents to lay down their arms.

The new president, Corazon Aquino, consults frequently with Cardinal Jaime Sin, the powerful Philippine church leader and archbishop of Manila.

The church exerts its influence on government not only through Cardinal Sin and the bishops but also indirectly through the Jesuit-trained officials and advisers who are sometimes referred to as the "Jesuit mafia."

"It was a lot easier taking pot shots at Marcos," said Joaquin G. Bernas, a leading Jesuit member of President Aquino's "think tank" of advisers during the campaign leading up to the Feb. 7 presidential election. Bernas, 53, a short, slender, New York University-trained constitutional lawyer, is often viewed as the most influential member of that group. His main job is to serve as president of Ateneo de Manila University, an institution that has trained many members of the Philippine elite.

"I guess the entire position of the church could be summarized by saying that the Marcos government was an immoral government, so it had to be rejected," the priest said in an interview at his university office. "Because of its immorality, it was leading the entire nation to ruin, and possibly to a Communist takeover."

Bernas said the church was "pulling back" from public affairs after Marcos' ouster.

During the interview, Bernas said he saw signs of indecisiveness on Aquino's part, and argued that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile should resign before long.

He also defended the Philippine church's activist role as not going beyond the pope's involvement in Poland.

The pope is reported to have urged Cardinal Sin to keep the Philippine church out of politics during a meeting with Sin in Rome on March 6. Sin later stated that "churchmen will not desire the limelight as a reward for their contribution" to bringing about the overthrow of Marcos.

But like it or not, analysts here say, churchmen are now part of a delicate balance of power among disparate groups contending for influence with Aquino. These include human rights lawyers as well as traditional politicians, military men as well as Harvard- and Jesuit-trained Cabinet ministers. The influential finance minister, Jaime V. Ongpin, and the trade and industry minister, Jose Concepcion, are both graduates of Ateneo de Manila.

Strains have begun to appear in the coalition. Some of the military men are unhappy with Aquino's moves toward reconciliation with the Communists. Some church officials are uneasy with the continuing influence of the military and with the influence in particular of Defense Minister Enrile, who, before his revolt against Marcos, helped to implement the former leader's martial law decrees.

"In all my personal dealings with Enrile, I have found him to be a very decent person," said Bernas. "He has made a major contribution to the nation . . . but his own record could affect his credibility. He might prefer to quit while he's ahead."

Bernas agrees that one of the biggest problems facing the country is how to deal with the Communist insurgency.

Bernas estimated the number of priests and nuns actively working with the rebel New People's Army at fewer than 50. But had Marcos stayed in power, that number would have certainly increased, he said.

The Jesuit priest said that he did not expect the hard core of the Communist movement to respond to Aquino's calls for a cease-fire and the surrender of their arms.

But he said he believes that the "socially discontented" followers of the rebel cause "can be attracted back to society by reforms."