THIS past year the parochial-school issue burst on an unsuspecting France. In March some 750,000 Roman Catholics, fearing that the Socialists' education bill would secularize their schools, protested in Versailles. Then in June a million demonstrators gathered in Paris. In July President Francois Mitterrand withdrew the legislation.
By September the Socialists meekly submitted a new bill that met most of the Catholics' demands. Political observers were astounded, religious observers scarcely less so.
The French Catholic Church, which for two decades has felt itself in crisis, suddenly found that it has more rallying power than any political party.
Ironically, the schools issue itself was something of an embarrassment to the hierarchy, at least until the protesters won. The mainstream bishops, by and large, would have preferred to compromise with the ruling Socialist Party, to lay to rest at long last the ghost of the century-and-a-half-old education feud between church and state.
Early in the debate, however, Socialist militants overshot their mark and forced through a more radical private-school bill than Mr. Mitterrand originally wanted. Catholic militants then fought back and routed the Socialists. In the aftermath everyone had to reassess the role of the church and Catholic lobbies in politics.
Articulating a modern, pluralist role
What this reassessment reveals is a church that has newly recovered its self-confidence and has begun to articulate a modern pluralist role for itself in society and politics.
Its present position is perhaps best described as acceptance that the French Catholic Church is only one of many actors - along with a new-found conviction that it nonetheless has something of value to say to the other actors and not just to its own parishioners.
This is a rather more complex civic role than that of the Catholic Church in Spanish or even Italian society. It has less to do with relations between church and state as institutions than with the contribution of Catholics as individual and collective moral thinkers to solving common political dilemmas.
This new function is epitomized in recent epispocal statements on unemployment, manipulation of genes, race relations, and nuclear weapons - and it is symbolized by the willingness of the hierarchy to mix with government officials since the Socialist electoral victory of 1981.
The new catchword is ''visibility'' - something the Catholic Church began striving for in French society only in the 1980s.
The developments that impelled this emergence include the church's stricken response to a challenge by Pope John Paul II; the appointment of Jean-Marie Lustiger as archbishop of Paris (1981) and cardinal (1983); France's intellectual shift to the right; and, curiously enough, the election of the Socialists in 1981 for the first time in decades.
Lustiger would be a remarkable cardinal in any country. He comes from an agnostic Polish Jewish family. He lost his mother at Auschwitz. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 14 after having secretly read the entire Bible.
His preparation for his present leadership involved not only ministry in a 16 th arondissement church in Paris but also chaplaincy at the Sorbonne - and years of wrestling with intellectuals' sophisticated dismissal of religion on grounds not all that different from Voltaire's. He has already heard - and refuted - all the arguments about the irrelevance of religion in the modern world.
Lustiger's rebuttal has been equally sophisticated. It is based less on the still impressive institutional power of the church than on the conviction that a chastened secular world has discovered something of its own sterility and hubris and might now be ready to pay grudging attention to broader moral and spiritual values.
France's postwar economic expansion and modernization ''have anesthetized the moral conscience of our nation,'' Lustiger told an interviewer from Le Point last April.
But ''we are witnessing today a certain (religious) resurgence. . . .
''The awakening from amnesia of the last decades makes for rediscovery of the church as an honest interpreter, the honest symbol of (fundamental) ethical questionings. The church is . . . the legitimate spokesman - since it is disinterested - of the reclaiming by man of his own humanity.''
From such reasoning by Lustiger and the new generation of bishops like him - men who are not easily categorized in terms of right and left - the church has arrived at a new readiness to speak out on social issues. This new willingness is helped along by two contradictory developments: the demise of the intellectual left and the rise to power of the political left.
The conversion of the chic left that used to excuse Soviet military intervention to a chic right that wants to be tough with Moscow was effected by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and especially by Soviet-sponsored repression in a country sentimentally close to France: Catholic Poland. The shift made French intellectuals less scornful of an episcopate that in 1977 had warned against forgetting the demands of faith in the fashionable dialogue with Marxism.
Simultaneously, the electoral victory of the French Socialists and Communists in 1981 for the first time in a generation meant that church leaders could now consort with government officials without being suspected of clericalism and collusion with the reactionary right. Certainly they could also claim justification for such mingling in the new influence of Catholic politicians on one wing of the Socialist Party and in the Socialist votes cast by an estimated 25 percent of Catholics.
The hierarchy's consequent readiness to mix with government officials - for the first time since 1905 - caused a sensation. The sensation derived from French history.
Two centuries back it was Voltaire's Enlightenment and the French Revolution that launched the entire challenge to the church's temporal power in a Catholic Europe reconsolidated after the Reformation. The secularization that hit Italy only in 1870 and Spain only intermittently until the 1960s was born here in the 18th century.
Those two centuries of experience hardly trained the French church in the kind of democratic pluralist interaction the church is experimenting with today, of course.
Competing with other systems of thought
But the wary and often hostile coexistence between church and state that prevailed up until World War II did require the disestablished French church to compete with other systems of thought in a way that the Spanish and Italian churches were long spared.
Thus, even before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church faced an alternative Protestant religion in France that was much stronger than the Waldensians in Italy or isolated heretics in Spain. The anticlerical French Revolution then guillotined numerous priests, dissolved most of the monastic orders, confiscated the church estates that accounted for one-tenth of French territory, and forcibly replaced the Catholic churches of Paris with temples to the Cult of Reason.
Napoleon's calculated reinstatement of religion as a pacifier of the population in the Concordat of 1801 and subsequent agreements with Protestant and Jewish faiths ended the persecution of Catholics (and reinstituted state payment of priests, in return for Vatican acceptance of the nationalization of former church estates). But neither Napoleon nor the Restoration that again made Catholicism the state religion until the mid-19th century ever reconciled religious and civil society.
Even the last century has had its share of Catholic-secular antagonism. Schools were a main bone of contention, with the monastic orders holding a virtual monopoly on education in the Second Empire, then being ousted by a secular system at the turn of the century. Clericals joined in the anti-Semitic hounding of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and supported return of the vanished monarchy.
The Republicans retaliated by banning Catholic schools and expelling 20,000 members of Jesuit and other orders from 1901 to 1904; abrogating Napoleon's Concordat and ending state payment of priests; separating church and state with the famous law of 1905; expropriating all Catholic churches (though the churches were still allowed to function); barring the clergy from teaching in public schools; and breaking diplomatic relations with the Vatican. With this record Catholic historians categorize the decades between 1880 and 1920 as the period when French Catholics were ''exiles in their own country.''
The Catholic Church started to emerge from this political ostracism only in the aftermath of World War I, according to Jean Potin, editor in chief of the Catholic newspaper La Croix. The patriotism of the war finally reconciled many Catholics to the Third Republic and weaned them from royalist dreams - and the French clergy's participation in the war reconciled anticlerical politicians to the church.
The expulsion of the religious orders and the ban on their teaching was lifted in 1914. Diplomatic relations with the Vatican were resumed in 1920. Catholics were allowed to own all churches built after the 1905 law - and the state did a satisfactory job in financing the maintenance of the older churches it continued to own.
Civil rapprochement completed
This civil rapprochement was not completed, according to Fr. Potin, until World War II. At that point the 10,000 priests who were conscripted certified to the political loyalty of the Catholics. So did Catholic participation in the resistance, say today's Catholics (a judgment not shared by Gen. Charles De Gaulle, who demanded a postwar purge of Vichy collaborators in the episcopate).
At the same time, however, France's increasing secularization, materialism, and ''paganism,'' as Catholics came to term it, weighed heavily on the church. The hierarchy doubted that France was in fact listening to it, or thinking of it as relevant to modern life.
At this critical juncture, in 1943, two priests published a landmark book, ''France, Country of Mission.'' Its uncomfortable thesis was that godless secularized Frenchmen needed as much evangelizing as any heathens in far-off lands. There was a ''wall separating (the church) from the masses,'' the priests asserted.
The book shocked ''the eldest daughter'' of Rome, the church that had led most of the crusades, had defended the Pope to the last against the Italian Risorgimento, and as late as a century ago had provided 75 percent of Roman Catholic missionaries abroad.
The book's thesis was applauded, however, by those young activist clergymen who immediately took jobs in factories in the worker-priest movement in order to minister to the proletariat's economic and social as well as pastoral needs. And it even became conventional wisdom within the hierarchy as the number of seminary students fell precipitously in the mid-1960s.
In the fluid postwar period the church could have but didn't attach itself politically to the right - not even the democratic right of some confessional party on the West German or Belgian Christian Democratic model. In this period abortion was legalized in France, to the moral disapproval of the church but without any political campaign by the hierarchy against it. In this period the government first offered state subventions to private (overwhelmingly Catholic) schools, financing teachers' salaries as the postwar baby boom hit the classrooms in 1959.
A positive neutrality
These adjustments were widely regarded as a long overdue normalization of church-state relations. No one would have considered blurring the 1905 separation of church and state by resumption of government payment of parish priests as in Italy and Spain. But no one except for militants on the left viewed the introduction of state subsidies for parochial schools as contravening that separation.
To the disappointment of Catholics all the improvements in church-state relations, all the social activism of young priests and lay Catholics, and even the liberalization of the Second Vatican Council failed to halt the ''de-Christianization'' of France, notes Fr. Potin. The result was ''a very difficult crisis in self-confidence.''
Some 80 percent of Frenchmen are still baptized. But in recent years only 10 percent go to mass every Sunday, according to Fr. Potin. An opinion poll in 1982 ranked religion in a humiliating 15th place in public values, well below such alternatives as justice or sexuality.
Furthermore only 150,000 people turned out to greet John Paul II in 1980 on the first papal visit to France since Pius VII was summoned to crown Napoleon. ''France, eldest daughter of the church, are you fulfilling the promises of your baptism?'' John Paul II asked sternly, and many a French priest took the rebuke to heart.
All the more surprising, then, was this year's display of civic passion by Catholic parents of the 16 percent of pupils in private education.
Here, unlike Italy, the voluntary nature of religious instruction in public schools was never at issue; French Catholics have no expectation of making catechism compulsory and are resigned to the present attendance of only some 60 percent of pupils between the ages of 8 and 12 at religious classes.
Nor, unlike Spain, were self-governing councils in private schools at issue. Such councils of administrators, teachers, parents, and secondary pupils have been operating satisfactorily for years.
What the Catholics did fear from the new legislation, however, was gradual devolution of subsidies from the national paymaster to less enthusiastic local governments; the offer to let private schoolteachers become civil servants if they wished (and possibly gain future independence from Catholic school administrations); and tightened state curriculum and admission standards.
All these measures the protesters regarded as threatening a ''nationalization'' of private Catholic schools. Under the banner of ''free schools'' they won their case.
Will this turn of events now alter the French church's ongoing political evolution? Will it reawaken in Frenchmen not a dormant religious sense as Lustiger hopes, but rather the old hostility between Catholic right and atheistic left?
For a few months that seemed a likely prospect. But for the longer term both the present church hierarchy and the pragmatic Socialists are intent on avoiding any return to confrontation.
The parochial schools will no doubt continue to be subsidized by the state for decades to come. The French Catholic Church, bolstered by its education victory, will most likely accelerate its search for ''visibility.'' But the prospects still are that its political visibility will aim more at differentiated admonition than at the monolithic exercise of power.
In line with this, France's leading analyst of Catholic politics, Prof. Rene Remond, points out that pluralism has been a principle of the church ever since it was explicitly endorsed by the episcopate in 1962. He explains: ''Pluralism is a fact, a right. Because political opinions are relative, therefore it is natural that Christians with the same faith have different opinions. . . . But at the same time Catholics are reclaiming pluralism to assert their positions too.''
Lustiger clearly shares this view and sees pluralism as enhancing rather than diminishing the church's social and political role at this point.
''All world problems are at base spiritual problems, themselves issuing from Christian temptation,'' Lustiger told Le Point. ''The principal problems of the world crisis (family, underdevelopment, wars, etc.) have a possible technical solution. We would be able to feed all men, develop all new countries, interrupt the arms race, etc. if we wanted to. . . . The impossibility is located in our wills, in our hearts. . . .
''The responsibility of Christians is not to solve the problem in the place of others. . . . But in the measure that the heart of the difficulties lies in spiritual blockages, not in technical insufficiencies, the saintliness or absence of saintliness of Christians and of men weighs very heavily on the fate of humanity.''