(DETROIT FREE PRESS) --Are Catholic nuns allowed to challenge the church on abortion, gay marriage and allowing women to become priests?

The question is at the center of a roiling power struggle between the Vatican and American nuns, which will escalate this week as a leading organization of 1,500 Catholic sisters decides whether to bend to Vatican control or break with the church.

With several Michigan nuns in the thick of the controversy, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will meet in St. Louis starting today to decide how to respond to the Vatican's recent crackdown on its organization. The Vatican says it will take control of LCWR, deciding whether to approve or censor all of its public activities.

"They're trying to keep women in an inferior place in the church," said retired Detroit auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a leader of progressive Catholic causes.

"It's discouraging and heartbreaking that the Vatican keeps acting this way," said Gumbleton, who added he thinks it still can be resolved with discussions between Vatican representatives and the nuns' leadership.

This controversy is the latest example of the cataclysmic upheaval dividing American Catholics along conservative and progressive lines.

Many Catholics consider the LCWR censure -- plus a separate 2010 Vatican investigation of 500 U.S. nun congregations -- an assault on the nuns who taught generations and work on behalf of the country's poor people.

Others say compliance is necessary to ensure that Catholics publicly speak with a united voice to support Vatican teachings, especially against abortion, gay marriage and women in the priesthood.

In the world envisioned by the Vatican, Sister Sandra Schneiders, who was known as Sister Robert John when she taught at a Detroit grade school and Marygrove College, wouldn't be getting a prominent award Friday in St. Louis.

Schneiders, a 75-year-old member of the Monroe-based Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns and a theology professor in California, has questioned whether the gospel supports the Catholic Church's ban on women becoming priests.

The Vatican's chief investigator of the nun organization is Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, who was a Detroit auxiliary bishop and pastor of St. Paul in Grosse Pointe Farms. Blair, who led a three-year LCWR inquiry, has cited Schneiders as an example of why the nun organization needs oversight by the Vatican and U.S. bishops.

The Vatican has put Blair, 63, along with two other American bishops, in charge of approving LCWR's written materials, communications, public statements, awards and speakers.

Blair, who grew up on Detroit's east side, has said he respects the nuns and is grateful for their work, but that the LCWR needs oversight and is not promoting the most important issues facing Catholics. The Vatican's formal censure of LCWR, issued in April, said the leadership espoused "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

In a National Public Radio (NPR) interview last month, Blair said there is no middle ground to discuss whether sisters need to publicly adhere to Catholic doctrine.

Schneiders, considered a renegade by conservatives, has declined to comment.

"I'd just as soon not comment on things until after the Conference has had the chance to consult its membership (and) formulate its corporate response," she wrote in an e-mail.

Most of Michigan's congregations of sisters are members of LCWR, but there are religious orders of nuns in the state who support the Vatican's side.

"I think that there's a lot of heartbreak right now. But I think the bishops are doing what a bishop should do," said Mother Jane Mary Firestone, a physician and member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, an order that backs the Vatican's action.

"We are a magnificent country of Americans, which is extremely Democratic. The church's structure is hierarchical and that rubs against us, especially as Americans," Firestone said Monday.

The Alma sisters are not members of LCWR.

The controversy revives a long-held sentiment that the church's male hierarchy condescends to women, and that the Vatican is picking on aging, intellectual religious women, even as it has yet to fully atone for the priest sex abuse scandal.

In metro Detroit, several parishes have held services to show support for the sisters, including Detroit Gesu parish, where hundreds showed up to welcome the Nuns on the Bus national tour in June.

The Vatican's rebuke of the LCWR said the organization hasn't adequately promoted the church's anti-abortion stance or its opposition to gay marriage

"I think the criticism of what we're not talking about seems to me to be unfair," Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing LCWR president and an Iowa Franciscan nun, said in a recent NPR interview.

"Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too -- if there's such an emphasis on that. However, we have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life."

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