AP 30 Sep 95 12:00 EDT V0735

The Associated Press.


Associated Press Writer UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The Vatican sees itself as shepherd to the United Nations' flock of 185 countries.

The two groups are mostly on common ground when the issues are aiding refugees, improving the lot of the poor and seeking world peace. But as the United Nations focuses more closely on social issues, the strains are showing.

"When things turn to abortion, population policies, issues affecting the family ... that's when the tension comes in," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Center for International Affairs.

Pope John Paul II is expected to speak out on women's rights, peace in the former Yugoslavia, the need for reconciliation in Rwanda and the obligation of richer nations toward the poor when he addresses the General Assembly on Thursday. The pope last addressed the United Nations in 1979.

"The church by its own definition is the family of Christ, and the United Nations represents the family of nations," said Monsignor Robert L. Charlebois, vice president of the Path to Peace Foundation. "It gives the opportunity for the church of Christ to ... reach out."

The Vatican traditionally keeps a low profile at the United Nations, consulting with delegates in the hallways and behind closed doors.

But in recent years, it has become increasingly vocal at U.N. forums on population, poverty and the role of women.

"They almost have a structurally defined low profile," said Alvaro de Soto, a U.N. assistant secretary-general. But "they are always there and always in the background and everyone is always in touch with them and they are in touch with everyone."

The Vatican, like Switzerland, is an observer state at the United Nations and has a seat in the General Assembly, but no vote.

"The Holy See sees itself as a religious moral leader, not as simply another government, and that's why it would not want to have a vote in the assembly," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

The Vatican's role took center stage at the 1994 population conference in Cairo and the Beijing women's conference this year. Vatican officials allied themselves with Latin American and Islamic states and were on the floor rallying delegates to oppose abortion and wording on sexual rights.

"The church is never talking about moral compromises," Charlebois said. "It's an oxymoron."

Before the start of the population conference, Pope John Paul II wrote to every world leader outlining Vatican policy, and all ambassadors to the Holy See were summoned for a briefing by Vatican officials. The Vatican later wrote to every Episcopal conference and urged them to try to influence their governments' position.

The Vatican has relations with 160 countries.

"They have a great deal of clout with many governments, especially in Latin America, and when they come to these conferences, they are able to use the governments to push a lot of their issues," said Mallika Dutt, associate director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership.

The Vatican mission to the United Nations is small, with only six members. Its leader is Archbishop Renato Rafael Martino, a 33-year veteran of the Vatican diplomatic corps, who has served in Nicaragua, Lebanon, Canada and southeast Asian nations that include Thailand and Singapore.

"The Holy See doesn't have a lot of money. It doesn't have an army," Reese said. "All it has is a voice and it can focus attention on certain issues and hope that the world community will respond."