In her book, "In a Different Voice," Harvard professor Carol Gilligan argued that men tend to see moral issues in terms of rights, abstract and rigid principles of impartial justice, while women tend to think in terms of fairness, caring and responsibilities.

This ethical conflict is at the heart of a dispute that has taken Detroit by storm and caused a highly regarded Catholic nun and her order to collide head-on with the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church. And while the situation apparently reached an unsatisfactory, but permanent conclusion when Sister Agnes Mary Mansour resigned from the Sisters of Mercy last week, the issues raised and the way the situation was handled will have ramifications on the church's relations with women religious for years to come. A different voice is being raised within the church, just as it is throughout the rest of society: Mansour, 52 and a nun for 30 years, showed that the voice is not easily silenced.

The events that led to the donnybrook began late last year when Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard nominated Mansour , to head the state's Department of Social Services. Mansour, president of Mercy College in Detroit, obtained the necessary approvals from her order and from Archbishop Edmund C. Szoka to accept the post.

Jay M. Berman, the diocesan spokesman, says that Szoka told Mansour he "would have no objections to her taking the position, provided she clarified some ambiguities in past public statements she had made about Medicaid funding for abortions. These were statements to the effect that, in a pluralistic society, if rich women can get abortions there's an injustice if they are not available to poor women. That has some real doctrinal problems in the Catholic church."

About .l4 percent of Michigan's $3.6 billion social services budget went to Medicaid abortions last year. The archbishop insisted on a public statement from Mansour that this was morally wrong. When she declined to cooperate, he issued a statement to the media ordering her to quit the post. After she was approved for the job by the Michigan Senate, the matter was referred to the Vatican, which on May 9, sent a bishop who told herthat if she did not resign her job, she would be dismissed from her order. The Vatican also overrode the order's desire to grant her a leave of absence as a way out of the conflict.

Within days, Mansour resigned from the Sisters of Mercy. Her decision provoked widespread criticism of the church both in Michigan and among American religious women. The Sisters of Mercy's provincial administrator for Detroit, Sister Helen Marie Burns, issued a statement saying that the way the Vatican handled the dispute reflected "neither respect nor mutuality."

At a press conference, Mansour said the directive she received "was not the result of a dialogic, objective process, but of a unilateral one where neither I nor my religious superiors were ever given the opportunity to present our case. I do not feel that I should or could witness to an obedience which for me would be irrational and blind."

The church put a matter of religious doctrine, which was only theoretically relevant to Mansour's work, above all else. On the altar of that abstract consideration, the church sacrificed the contributions she could make to a state in the throes of a depression. And it forced her to sacrifice a lifelong vocation to avoid saying something publicly that went against her conscience.

In the past decade or more, American nuns have been discerning their ministries beyond schools, cloisters and hospitals in much the same way other American women began finding meaningful work outside the home. Nuns are administrators as well as nurses, college presidents as well as teachers. Three of the larger departments in the Detroit archdiocese, for example, are headed by nuns. They are seeking a voice in church affairs, much the way other American women are seeking a voice in political affairs.

It is a different voice, often reflecting a different set of ethics, a different construction of morality. It is a voice that deserves to be heard within the church, just as the voices of other American women need to be heard within the mainstream of American life.

No one--not the church, nor the religious communities, nor the people whom they serve--benefit when that voice is silenced by the raw use of Vatican power.