IN ordinary times, the December 1 meeting in Rome between a Soviet communist leader and a Polish Pope would have wholly upstaged the world's news. But the times were hardly ordinary. The Bush-Gorbachev meeting in Malta, the resignations of the East German political leadership, the ongoing turmoil in Czechoslovakia, a coup attempt in Manila, insurgency in El Salvador, the outbreak of terrorism in West Germany - the cyclone of events surrounding the Rome visit has left little breathing room for reflection.
Yet that visit may prove one of the most telling events of our time. Speaking to his Italian hosts, Mr. Gorbachev made a startling connection. The Soviet leadership, he said, has changed its attitude toward religion. ``Now we not only proceed from the assumption that no one should interfere in matters of the individual's conscience,'' he said. ``We also say that the moral values that religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too.''
Later, in a joint statement with Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, he agreed that ``the future international order should increasingly be based on the universal values of freedom, of all forms of national, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and of pluralism.''
The central connection here, between religion and morality, is startling for two reasons. First, it comes from a man with a considerable intellectual debt to Karl Marx - the founder of modern communism, who dismissed religion as ``the opium of the people'' and held that what Gorbachev calls ``the individual's conscience'' didn't much matter. Second, it comes when the Western world - with its political systems built on respect for individual conscience - is losing sight of that connection and appears to be running on a kind of moral automatic pilot.
There are, of course, several interpretations of Gorbachev's statements. Knowing that ethics plays well in America these days, he may be trying to look good for export, as it were, without intending to live by his pronouncements. Or he may be speaking over his shoulder to his comrades back home, sending yet another signal that personal ethics must replace official corruption. Or he may genuinely be reflecting a groundswell of Soviet opinion demanding something more meaningful than the culture of materialism.
Whichever version is right - and I lean toward the last one - his words set up a curious spectacle. The presence of a communist leader recognizing the religious basis of ethical behavior - while Western democratic societies doggedly refuse to make the connection between their agonizing lapses in ethics and their declining religious attachments - is surely one of the most telling paradoxes of our time.
Cutting to the heart of that paradox in the latest Atlantic Monthly, author and political scientist Glenn Tinder speaks to Western culture on just this point. ``If Christianity declines and dies in coming decades,'' he warns, ``our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril.''
Why? Because at the center of Christianity lies the respect for individual conscience. And if that disappears, he notes, then ``the kind of political order we are used to - one structured by standards such as liberty for all human beings and equality under the law - becomes indefensible.''
Seen in that light, Gorbachev's actions are hardly surprising. Knowing that the prosperity of his nation hinges on its acceptance into the global community, he was reaching - in Rome as in Malta - for that ``kind of political order'' Dr. Tinder describes. He was seeking common standards - ``universal values,'' he called them - to apply across national boundaries.
Doing so, he touched on what many in the West have yet to grasp: that a global community requires a common ethic, and that such an ethic grows out of a religious base.