A few months into his tenure as archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin leaned into a left hook.

Answering priests' questions about where he stood on the question of altar girls, he said that while he "did not want anyone to be hurt," church law forbids them.

Many Chicago Roman Catholics, who had basked in Bernardin's consultative leadership after 15 troubled years under the more autocratic Cardinal John Cody, were outraged. Feminists demonstrated, and church members peppered the diocesan newspaper with angry letters as the controversy made headlines nationwide.

Then a parish priest defied the cardinal by scheduling girls to serve with boys at mass, and everyone braced for the explosion.

It never came.

Bernardin seemed genuinely shocked when, a short time later, a reporter asked if he planned to discipline the priest.

"Oh, no," he replied, explaining that he had gotten into the issue only because he was asked. "I felt that as a matter of personal integrity, I had to answer the question honestly. I stated that I had confidence in the pastors, and I left it to their pastoral judgment."

Case closed.

In a church whose members increasingly are deciding for themselves which traditional teachings make sense in their lives, Bernardin's handling of the altar-girl question is a key to understanding how many American bishops function: They are very clear about church doctrine, but they leave its application to individual consciences.

American Catholics, well educated and integrated into American culture, have largely replaced the father-knows-best attitude with the same questioning and evaluating that they apply to other aspects of their lives.

Led by a new breed of bishop, they have helped push the American hierarchy into a new, more mature relationship with the Vatican, as the bishops mediate between an independent, sometimes unruly, U.S. church and a pope who holds Catholic teachings to be nonnegotiable. They also have put their parish priests in a tough spot.

Polls find most American Catholics solidly behind the social agenda -- government spending on the poor, cuts in the military budget, opposition to aid for the Nicaraguan contras -- so important to Pope John Paul II.

But in a recent study of 4,000 University of Notre Dame alumni -- 86 percent of them active Catholics and nearly three-fourths of them under 50 -- 83 percent disagree with their church's ban on artificial contraception; 79 percent said the church should bless the marriages of divorced Catholics; 75 percent said abortion is moral in some instances; and 56 percent favored ordination of women to the priesthood, up 25 points from a decade ago.

Such dissent is among the Vatican's chief arguments with the U.S. Catholic church. American bishops making their periodic visit to the Vatican in 1983 reportedly got a stern dressing-down from the pope on that account. He made clear that he felt the bishops had failed in their duty to persuade their flock to follow church teaching on birth control, divorce and "the evil of abortion." He ordered them to have nothing to do with organizations that promote ordination of women.

Thereafter, the Vatican intervened directly in the American church in a series of extraordinary steps that left little doubt about the pope's dissatisfaction.

It ordered a detailed study, still under way, of U.S. theological seminaries to gauge the orthodoxy of the training of future priests.

American bishops were directed to study the religious orders of men and women. Many nuns, who have been in the forefront of changes in the American church since Vatican II, initially were outraged, but they used the process to inform the bishops of their contributions and their concerns. The bishops concluded the investigation with a report to Rome praising their work.

When 24 nuns, during the 1984 presidential election, joined lay Catholics in signing a New York Times advertisement questioning the church's stand on abortion and its involvement in partisan politics, the Vatican demanded they retract or face expulsion from their orders. All but two have reconciled with the Vatican, although some say they have not retracted their statements.

In a move that sent shock waves through the academic community, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared Catholic University theologian, the Rev. Charles Curran, ineligible to teach as a Catholic theologian because he dissented on matters of sexual morality. The Vatican stripped Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of key responsibilities as archbishop of Seattle because, Rome said, he had been lax about church teachings on divorce, homosexuality and celibacy among priests. It was the last straw in what Bishop James W. Malone, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called "a growing and dangerous disaffection of elements of the church in the United States from the Holy See."

The bishops' conference had no standing to intervene in a dispute between an individual bishop and the Vatican under canon law. But if Hunthausen could be stripped of responsibilities, then the Second Vatican Council's principle of collegiality -- bishops working with the pope in running the church -- was doomed.

Successive representations to Rome resulted in the pope's appointing a committee of three influential American prelates, headed by Bernardin, to try to come up with a solution. In the end, the pope agreed to a no-winner, no-loser compromise, drawn up by the bishops' committee, in which Hunthausen's powers were restored and the auxiliary bishop withdrawn and replaced with a coadjuter bishop who will take over when Hunthausen, 66, retires in nine years.

"Through the Hunthausen affair, the American bishops achieved a new maturity," said Eugene Kennedy, a Loyola University psychologist who has written extensively on the American Catholic hierarchy. "They were able to negotiate with Rome in an adult way. When the pope agreed to the American solution, it was like a father dealing with a son as an adult child . . . . It forever changes the relationship of the pope to the American bishops."

If the Hunthausen case had not been settled thus, "the pope's visit wouldn't have gone well," said the Rev. Richard Hynes, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. Hynes, whose job keeps him in touch with priests nationwide, said he has been "struck by the lack of enthusiasm among priests" for the papal visit, which he blames on the Hunthausen episode and other Vatican interventions in the American church.

In the United States and most of Western Europe, Roman Catholic priests are an endangered species. Official church statistics show that the U.S. total has declined from 59,803 in 1967 to 53,382 today. But the reality at the parish level is sparser.

According to a 1985 study by Dean Hoge of Catholic University, 64 percent of U.S priests serve local parishes, with the rest in administrative jobs, education, chaplaincies, foreign missions or other categories. With almost 53 million Catholics officially on the books (Hoge points out that pollsters regularly turn up an additional 10 million who consider themselves Catholic), that works out to one parish priest for every 912 Catholics.

The ratio can only widen, Hoge says, as the church continues to grow and the number of priests, whose median age in 1985 was a little over 53, continues to decline. For every three priests who die, retire or withdraw, he counts only two coming out of the seminary to take their places.

"Somehow, something has got to give," said Hoge, a Presbyterian layman who is a religion sociologist. But in recent years, records show that 20 percent of priests resign within 10 years of ordination; 35 percent within 15 years and 42 percent within 25 years. About 17,000 U.S. priests have left the priesthood to marry in the last 20 years, although many say they would take up the calling again if celibacy became optional. Pope John Paul II repeatedly has declared that door closed.

"One of the biggest frustrations for priests," Hynes said, "is that for a growing number of Catholics {in parishes without resident priests}, the Eucharist will not be celebrated weekly . . . for the sake of a discipline that is not in the scripture." The Roman Catholic church did not require a celibate priesthood until the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

But there are larger frustrations for priests who, even more than their bishops, are caught between what the church teaches and what parishioners practice.

"Priests are the people in the middle . . . . What I hope the pope will see when he comes is that the priests are not abandoning the church's teachings, they are not abandoning their people. They are trying to find a way to bridge that gap," Hynes said.

Nonetheless, priests' morale generally is "not terrible -- they're not massively angry or depressed," said the Rev. Philip Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center, "but it's not that great. There's not a sense of exhilaration or excitement." Murnion travels extensively to parishes in his work and says he asks "elusive" questions about morale wherever he goes because priests "have borne the brunt of all that has happened" in the 20 years since Vatican II ushered in a new era of openness.

In his study of the hierarchy, the Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit who interviewed 46 archbishops for a book in progress, found that bishops tend to listen hard and often to their priests because "these are the guys who are with them forever . . . . This is a marriage."

Diocesan priests typically are ordained in their dioceses and remain there for their working lives. That makes the bishop "the most significant person in their lifetime. He determines what parish they get, whether they become pastors, whether they get a chance to go for special studies . . . . He sets the tone of their lives."

That is why, Reese says, "a lot of priests out there are very nervous, especially those with elderly bishops" nearing retirement age. "They are terrified they are going to get somebody {as bishop} who is more authoritarian." New bishops, Hynes says, are increasingly drawn from administrative or academic jobs rather than from parishes, adding to the uncertainty about their future responsiveness to priests' concerns.

The Rev. Frank J. McNulty, pastor of the Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Roseland, N.J., has been chosen to articulate those concerns to the pope in a Miami meeting on Thursday. He believes most priests see their duty clearly.

"As a church, we must teach the moral teachings . . . and we always will do that, even if it is countercultural," he said. "But as a church, we have always taught that each person must follow a well-informed conscience." Where there is conflict, he added, the priest's job is to teach "with great pastoral compassion . . . not to make the moral decisions for people but to help them discern" their path.

Most priests, McNulty said, have learned to "walk the narrow line . . . with a wonderful sense of the mercy of God. They have sat in rectory offices and dried the people's tears and helped them wrestle with their problems." Before Vatican II, "the priest used to be a one-man band. Now he's an orchestra leader, facilitating our people's gifts."