The test of wills between Polish authorities and Roman Catholics who sympathize with Solidarity over a memorial cross on Victory Square presents the government in a puzzling and uncertain light.
Twice in four days, people singing hymns around the cross were brusquely dispersed by riot police. The cross, together with the votive candles surrounding it and the picture of the Pope and Lech Walesa, was removed.
Yet at midweek people had restored it. Long after dusk Aug. 17 a bigger crowd than before surrounded it - with no interference from the police.
The next day it was still in place, leaving observers to speculate what lay behind the authorities' ambivalent behavior.
Was it that Tuesday evening brought almost the entire Warsaw diplomatic corps (Western as well as Eastern) to the Hotel Intercontinental, which looks out on the square, for an Indonesian national day party?
Or, was it - as rumored - that higher authorities had realized the poor image the intermittent police action on Victory Square was giving Poland abroad?
Ostensibly, the cross is a memorial tribute to the late Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who died last year. In the present circumstances, it takes on political significance as part of the general popular resentment of the continuation of martial law.
Regardless of demonstrations in several other Polish cities this past week, it is hard to see this fervently chanting group - its nucleus always elderly and devout - as part of the ''counterrevolutionary underground'' that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has just told Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev is hindering Poland's progress toward normalization.
The only plausible purpose of the cat-and-mouse action against the cross would seem to be a reminder to all Poles that the authorities have the force and are ready to use it against any protest against emergency rule. It seems to be having the desired effect. Although the four or five former union activists operating underground in the Warsaw area have called for two weeks of sustained protest, only Warsaw and three provincial capitals (out of 48) have so far been affected.
This may change, especially at the end of the month, for that will mark the two-year anniversary of the signing of the pact between union and government leaders in the Gdansk shipyard. Whatever their disinclination to protest openly, all Poles will be very much aware of that anniversary.
For the time being, though, it appears the government has some justification for its claim that most of the populace is unresponsive to the calls for a campaign of protest and that the underground opposition commands no significant popular following.
Many people say they have had enough strikes and unrest and wish only for some return to normal living, relieved of martial law and at least its worst hardships.
A series of measures designed to ease some of the most acute problems suggests General Jaruzelski is trying to foster this perspective. They provide some protection for those at the lowest income levels, who have long since exhausted any savings they may have had.
He has tightened the watch on food prices and speculation, and moved to ensure better and more consistent supplies for the markets.
Incentives are to make two-thirds of basic wages, as well as bonuses, contingent on the quality of individual work and productivity.
Going beyond stock charges that the ''opposition'' is responsible, official reactions to the demonstrations of the past few days stress the validity of the August 1980 agreement.
''It is beyond question,'' the Communist Party daily Trybuna Ludu said Aug. 16, ''that the working class protest of August 1980 was justified and that it opened up a period of essential social and economic reform.''
Rzeczpospolita said the authorities were not challenging the results of ''August,'' adding that included the establishment of an independent trade union movement.