The term "quiet diplomacy" has taken on a new meaning in the affair of Pope John Paul II and Kurt Waldheim.

The Holy Father, over the clamorous objections of Jews and the more subdued dismay of his flock, received the ostracized president of Austria at the Vatican on June 25. The uproar continues, because the pope has remained stubbornly silent about his reasons for receiving an international pariah who can find welcome only in Jordan -- where he is now -- and Libya.

Vatican spokesmen have said defensively that the government of Austria had been importuning them for an invitation for six months. This suggests that it was for reasons of statecraft that the pope acceded. But more recently, a Vatican official said "the pope is convinced that you either understand events at a moral level or you don't understand them at all."

What is the "moral level" of the Waldheim visit? What is the message? That we should forgive an unrepentant Waldheim for lying about his service as an officer in the Nazi forces that presided over World War II massacres and deportations of Jews? The evidence suggests that the former secretary general of the United Nations was a careerist rather than a bloodthirsty Nazi. But records and photographs put him at the scene of these hideous events that Jews and other civilized people have resolved never to forget. Does the pope think that anti-Semitism is no longer a danger?

The American hierarchy has been expressing sympathy for Jewish feelings on the matter while warning against an overreaction that could lead to a backlash of rekindled anti-Semitism.

"If Catholics see the pope under attack," said one priest, "they will feel they have to defend him and let Jewish-Catholic relations go for a while."

Msgr. George G. Higgins, famed local go-between in labor disputes and in Catholic-Jewish relations, wrote in the Catholic Press that it is incumbent on Catholics to understand why "Jews . . . find it impossible, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, to understand why the Vatican gave the red-carpet treatment to a man who is battling accusations of a Nazi past and whom, for that reason, our own government has declared persona non grata."

But Higgins finds it "irresponsible" for Jewish leaders to threaten to break off the Jewish-Catholic dialogue that has flourished for the last 20 years -- ever since Vatican II decreed that anti-Semitism was out for Catholics.

The American Jewish Congress, the Synagogue Council, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have declared that they will boycott the Sept. 11 meeting in Miami with the Holy Father that was to be a highlight of the pope's U.S. tour. The day after a beaming Waldheim came out of his audience, the three groups sent a message to the Vatican urgently seeking a meeting.

Papal defenders point out that in his pastoral capacity he sees a number of black sheep. He received Yasser Arafat. But that encounter with a terrorist, for all the fury it stirred, had some redeeming substance. At least, he was suggesting that the plight of the Palestinians has something to do with the lack of peace in the Middle East.

Similarly, the pope's appearance on a Santiago balcony with Chile's reprehensible dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, set many nerves on edge. But on the same visit, the Holy Father ventured into the slums and embraced 19-year-old Carmen Quintera, still bearing the scars of the burning she received at the hands of Chilean security forces. Her companion, 19-year-old Rodriguez Rojas, who had lived in Rockville, died of burns in the torching.

"Holy Father," said Carmen Quintera, "the military did this to me."

"I know, my child," the pontiff replied. This assuaged the persecuted for whom it is comfort to know that the pope is aware of their sufferings.

To Waldheim, John Paul spoke of his guest's devotion to "securing peace" during his U.N. days. What he may have said in private about Waldheim's wartime activities in the service of Nazi cruelty -- something the pope experienced in his native Poland -- is something we have not been told.

The boldest hierarchical protests have come, understandably, from France. The cardinal of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, wrote the pope that his action suggested that he "has forgotten that the rationality of politics must never supersede moral obligations." The cardinal was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism.

Cardinal Albert Decoustray said, "The more I try to understand the reason for this visit, the more it becomes incomprehensible to me." He is the archbishop of Lyons, where Klaus Barbie, the Nazi butcher, is on trial.

You don't have to be Jewish to think that the pope has some explaining to do.