A ban on divorce carried over from Argentina's autocratic past remains an irritant for many people here. But it is also a last-stand traditionalist cause for others as this country strives to fashion a new democratic society.

Argentina -- along with a few other countries including Paraguay, Ireland, Malta and the Philippines -- does not permit divorce and remarriage. The Roman Catholic Church, Argentina's official, politically influential church, would prefer to keep this country in that group. About 80 percent of the population is Catholic.

But hundreds of thousands of Argentines -- some say as many as 2 million -- have disregarded religious teachings and started new families after leaving their first marriages. Public pressure to enact divorce legislation has mounted since the end of military rule in 1983.

The democratically elected government of President Raul Alfonsin has ducked the issue, concentrating in its first two years in office on reviving a debt-ridden economy and disciplining the armed forces for past human rights abuses.

But politicians in both Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union and the opposition Peronist movement appear determined to debate the divorce question in Congress this year. Deputies have presented 14 bills in the Chamber of Deputies that would permit the dissolution of marriages, and three such bills are pending in the Senate.

"This issue, together with the anachronism demanding that the president of the republic be Catholic, are the remaining carry-overs of a past technocratic culture that assigns to the state the responsibility of legally subjugating individuals to the prescriptions of a religion," said Pablo Giussani, a political columnist for the daily paper La Razon.

The antidivorce rule has not stopped married couples from breaking up. Under existing legislation, spouses may obtain separation agreements assigning property rights, deciding child custody and awarding support payments. Even in such bastions of traditionalism as the military and the diplomatic corps, it is not uncommon to find people separated from their legal spouses living with new mates and having children by them.

But the law continues to pose both practical and psychological problems for those who want to remarry. Because such marriages are illegal, there is no juridical framework under which one partner can lay claim to the property of the other should their unrecognized union end.

Government ministries refuse to make social security payments to any but the first spouse of a public employe. The Foreign Ministry pays air fares only for the legally recognized spouses of diplomats sent abroad. Since it will pay for maids' tickets, however, some Argentine diplomats have been known to use this provision to get tickets for their unofficial mates.

Couples blocked from marrying in Argentina frequently look outside the country for marriage licenses to give their bond at least a semblance of legal authority. Some attorneys here specialize in obtaining foreign marriage certificates by mail, particularly from neighboring Paraguay, where the ban on divorce applies only to Paraguayan citizens, not to foreigners.

"As a product of this society, I had prejudices myself against not being married," said Raul Justo, an Argentine diplomat who went the Paraguay route in 1977 when Dotty Erb, the woman he wanted to marry, decided to leave her first husband.

"I needed some kind of legalization. Dotty also wanted something to show in front of the children from her first marriage. When the law of our country didn't give us the possibility, we had to look somewhere else for it."

Foreign marriage licenses have no standing in Argentina if one of the partners has been married previously. The birth certificates of the two children born to Justo and Erb, for instance, read "extramatrimonial child."

Until last year, inheritance rules discriminated against the children of unwed couples. Now, due to a change in the law, they have the same rights to the property of their parents as the children born to either of the parents in marriages recognized by the state as legal. Also since last year, mothers have been granted equal say with fathers over legal matters affecting their children.

But unofficial spouses still lack claims on the property of their mates. In the case of Justo and Erb, to ensure that Erb could inherit the downtown Buenos Aires apartment in which she and Justo now live, they had to pretend that Erb put up half the money, thus entitling her to sign as a coowner. Other couples in similar circumstances have set up trusts to hold property, stocks and cash in the name of their partners.

"I could understand this in the last century," said Justo, who is 39. "But we are in 1986. We're also in Argentina, which considers itself European and which, for Latin America, is a country of high cultivation, education, intelligence. It's hard to understand why we have to pay this price."

Argentina's Catholic Church, already displeased with the spread of pornography that has accompanied the return to democracy, appears intent on drawing the line at divorce. A church study on the indissolubility of marriage, published two years ago, said that the subject of divorce is not a matter of opinion to be decided by a majority. It noted that countries where divorce is accepted have seen a rise in the breakup of marriages and warned of grave consequences that could result from destroying the family unit.

Argentine churchmen have proclaimed that neither the National Congress nor any other lay body has a right to tamper with what the clergy considers a divine commandment. In a Palm Sunday sermon apparently intended to head off any moves by Congress on divorce, Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu denounced what he called attempts to "destabilize the family and to set time limits on its permanence."

The church has not yet launched a formal antidivorce campaign, leaving the leafleteering and lobbying for now to a small right-wing organization called Family, Tradition and Property. Several congressmen reported, however, that bishops in their home districts have privately urged them not to touch the divorce issue.

Nonetheless, the Radicals' lower house leader, Cesar Jaroslavsky, announced after a party caucus early last month that the time had come to reconsider the matter.

The Tradition, Family and Property group has been pushing the idea of a referendum, but both government and church appear reluctant to hold one -- the government for fear of dividing society and upsetting the ecclesiastical lobby, and the clergy for fear of losing the vote.

Views on divorce cut across party lines, pitting orthodox Catholics and traditionalists against progressives among both Radicals and Peronists. Alfonsin himself has not taken a public position. But Vice President Victor Martinez, also a Radical, has made clear his opposition to a change, saying the time is "not opportune" and "there are other subjects more important to debate."

Congressional proposals differ on such points as whether there should be a waiting period before couples could divorce or divorced persons could remarry, and even whether there should be a limit on how many times a person is permitted to remarry. One Radical deputy has proposed distinguishing between two types of marriage -- a civil one subject to divorce and an indissoluble religious one.

The simplest approach being suggested is to lift a suspension on a divorce law that ex-president Juan Peron had passed in 1954 as part of an effort to weaken the church. The military suspended that law after ousting Peron in 1955.