The ruling Sandinistas have taken the pressure off the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua. But the uneasy truce between church and state could collapse because of an ongoing conflict over the education of the country's youth.
More than 90 percent of the people of Nicaragua profess Roman Catholicism. Many of the clergy, led by Managua's popular Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, opposed the late President Anastasio Somoza Debayle and supported the Sandinista-led revolution against him.
But once the Sandinistas took power, Obando y Bravo and many of the others became disillusioned with their conduct. They feared the Sandinistas were moving the country toward one-party rule.
The Sandinista media attacked Archbishop Obando y Bravo. On two occasions pro-Sandinist mobs jostled the archbishop, and on one occasion they damaged his car.
In February of this year, another religious group, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, issued a statement criticizing the forced evacuation of Miskito Indians living along the Coco River dividing Nicaragua and Honduras. The statement accused the regime of committing ''grave violations'' of human rights, including killings, forced marches, and the destruction of Miskito homes.
In April, the junta instructed the Catholic Church to change the traditional hour of its Good Friday mass, but finally backed down when the church said it would go ahead with the service as planned.
In July, anti-Sandinist Catholic students took over about 14 high schools in five cities. In the city of Masaya, some youths attacked a police station, and three persons were killed in clashes there.
In August, a group of men believed to be pro-Sandinist seized the Rev. Bismarck Carballo, the spokesman for the Roman Catholic hierarchy here, stripped him of his clothes, and marched him into the street. He was arrested and interrogated. He was also shown on television, with the suggestion made that he was attacked by a jealous husband.
Popular indignation over the Carballo incident was strong, and the Sandinista leaders seemed to realize that matters had gone too far.
Since then, the junta has begun easing the pressure on the church. There has been some criticism of Archbishop Obando y Bravo but no more violence. The truce is expected to last at least through the projected visit here in March of Pope John Paul II.
But a more subtle conflict over education in Roman Catholic-run schools - as many as one-fourth of the country's schools are Catholic - may be intensifying.
The schools get significant financial support from the government, and the junta feels that it should have some control over what is taught. But the Catholic hierarchy worries that Marxist ideology will begin to dominate the curriculum.
The Sandinistas argue that they are in favor of a pluralistic, not a one-party, system. Some observers note that much will depend, not just on Education Ministry guidelines but on how courses are taught and who the teachers are. But organizations of Catholic parents are not reassured. The parents have grown increasingly concerned over Sandinista efforts to create a ''new revolutionary man'' out of Nicaragua's youth.
The current state-church truce seems to have extended to Protestant churches as well. In 1980, Sandinista community defense groups occupied a number of Protestant churches, but these have been returned to their congregations.
On Dec. 12, the Roman Catholic Church addressed itself directly to the question of education. A bishops' letter stated, among other things, that there was a marked tendency in the educational system to favor one interpretation of social, economic, and political reality.
The letter also questioned the emphasis on ''class struggle'' which, it said, was evident in some educational texts and programs and could lead to ''class hatred.'' The letter criticized propaganda that it said was alien to Christian values. It also said that the government should not try to hold a monopoly over education.
Father Carballo, the spokesman for the church hierarchy, said that the Church did not put much trust in Sandinista declarations of respect for religion. He said that the Catholic radio station where he works is not allowed to broadcast news of any kind.
''We think that the Sandinistas have a Marxist mentality and want to destroy the church,'' said Carballo.