THE meeting to take place this Friday between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II - between the head of the world's largest atheist nation, and the world's most prominent religious leader - would be a show-stopper in another year. But this year its impact will be mitigated by ongoing changes in the East bloc, and by the Malta summit - which takes place the day after the two meet. Still, it's another important barrier broken by glasnost. Mr. Gorbachev visits the Vatican during the biggest-ever rollback on religious restrictions in the USSR. About 20 Russian Orthodox churches reopen each week. Church attendance is increasing, and is tolerated. There's even an eclectic new 15-minute Sunday evening religious show on Soviet TV titled ``Thoughts on the Eternal.'' The tacit message is that Gorbachev admits that, even if for reasons of economic vitality, people need spiritual sustenance.
Gorbachev stands to gain from good relations with the pope. He would like the Vatican's support in achieving perestroika in the heavily Roman Catholic East bloc. The Vatican was closely allied with the early impulses of Solidarity in Poland (and restored full relations with Poland this year) and is showing a stronger hand in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Much of the discussion is likely to center on the Ukraine. In 1946 Stalin ordered the Orthodox Church to absorb the Ukrainian Catholics, forcing Catholics to go underground. Now thousands of Catholics in Lvov march in the streets seeking official status. Gorbachev ought to undo Stalin's work and give them the recognition they seek.
Concern has been raised that one of Gorbachev's conditions for granting Catholics legal status in the Ukraine would be an effort by the pope, with appeasing words, to oppose ethnic and nationalist fervor there and in the Baltics. The pope would get the church. Gorbachev would get stability.
Such a scenario would not be welcome. The pope is a moral, not a political leader. Neither religious nor democratic freedoms would be helped by Vatican dealmaking. However, freedom in the region would be furthered by a wise, strong Vatican stand for continued human rights.