PARIS -- The protests about Pope John Paul II receiving Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican next week miss the point. As a religious leader, the pope turns no sinner away. As a political leader, this pope has rightly made it his duty to confront rather than shun those with whom he disagrees, from Chile's Pinochet to Poland's Jaruzelski.

In an era when Reagan and Gorbachev are styled as the Great Communicators, John Paul is the Great Confronter. He wants to illuminate an international moral order as an alternative to the corrupting political structures of the temporal world. The pope does not allow those who try to find legitimacy by meeting him to get away unscathed, Waldheim will discover.

The protests demonstrate another important reality about the pope. Most of us tend to focus on this remarkably multifaceted pontiff through the one or two prisms that matter most to us at the time, and fail to grasp the integrated, long-term political and ethical vision of a man who will mark the closing years of the 20th century as much as any other leader we can identify today.

If we disagree with him on birth control or his tough rejection of the Sandinistas, he comes on like a Catholic ayatollah. If we don't like his message on redistributing wealth or oppose having his cardinals challenge prowestern military regimes, he is a meddling do-gooder.

The sense that there is a broader pattern in all this has been growing for me since a trip through Asia last year provided a chance to listen in the same week to Cardinal Stephen Kim in Seoul and Cardinal Jaime Sin in Manila. They described in detail the moral collapse of the elites ruling their nations and the church's refusal to collaborate in the efforts of those elites to keep power through repression.

The differences between the two prelates, and between their societies, are greater than the similarities. But John Paul's determination to have his church be the alternative moral authority to government in societies swept up in social upheaval was clearly enunciated by both men.

In the Philippines, Cardinal Sin, acting with John Paul's encouragement, played the key role in mobilizing "People's Power" to depose the Marcoses. We may be witnessing a similar process at work right now in South Korea and in Panama. And the pope's trips to his native Poland, including the one he concluded earlier this week, have fundamentally reshaped politics in Eastern Europe.

Despite open displays of disapproval by Gen. Jaruzelski and the quiet discomfort of the more conservative and accommodation-minded national church hierarchy, John Paul publicly celebrated the regime's failure to break the moral authority of the outlawed Solidarity movement. He extolled the courage and intellectual honesty that have kept Solidarity from being bought off or intimidated out of existence. And he refused to extend legitimacy to nuclear disarmament proposals made by Gorbachev and Jaruzelski.

The pope's persistent and patient chipping away at the evils of communist rule in Poland stands in sharp contrast to the kind of rhetorical challenge that Reagan threw at Gorbachev in inviting him to apply the ultimate in transparency to the Berlin Wall by tearing it down.

Some at the State Department counseled against the "tear down the wall" line as being too provocative at a time when progress is being made on an arms control summit with the Russians. That objection misses the point, it seems to me.

The White House continues to look for dramatic gestures that will persuade Americans and foreigners alike that there is still life in the administration, rather than developing a serious analysis of how to deal with the Soviets in the years to come.

The White House underscored this in another way recently by sounding out Zbigniew Brzezinski about becoming the next U.S. ambassador to Poland. Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and a red flag to the Russians, was not interested in discussing this bizarre proposal and urged the White House instead to send an experienced professional, which it is now doing.

History is likely to record the challenge to tear down the wall as a meaningless taunt, delivered as a grand gesture that was not conceived as part of a coherent policy. The Reagan administration, heading into a summit with a clever and manipulative Soviet leader, continues to be unwilling to put in the kind of hard work and steady attention that John Paul devotes to the same set of problems.