ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) U.S. Catholic nuns — accused by Rome of “radical feminism” for advocating social justice at the expense of issues such as abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia — responded to a Vatican knuckle rapping with a brief, conciliatory statement on Monday (Aug. 19).

After its four-day annual assembly, the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 sisters, emphasized the positive, and remained tight-lipped about negotiations to resolve the investigation.

Referring to closed sessions with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, named by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to implement Rome’s “doctrinal assessment,” the sisters said:

“The session with Archbishop Sartain allowed a profound and honest sharing of views. … Although we remain uncertain as to how our work with the bishop delegates will proceed, we maintain hope that continued conversations of this depth will lead to a resolution of this situation that maintains the integrity of LCWR and is healthy for the whole church.”

It’s unclear whether the nuns’ gentle words will be sufficient to turn away the wrath of the church’s hierarchy.

In brief public remarks, Sartain told the nuns he came to the gathering as a “brother and a friend.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said the tone was far less confrontational than in the past.

“Things could have been much worse after the meeting, and that clearly didn’t happen,” he said. “From their press release, they’re saying that things improved slightly — which is good news. Because both sides seemed to have listened and understood each other during the meeting.”

Initially, the nuns “didn’t feel that they were treated with respect, as adults,” Reese said. “Now it’s no longer a food fight. They’re talking; they’re having a conversation. It’s like couples counseling. … That’s a big step forward from where they were in 2011.”

The controversy began in April 2011, when, under the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR, saying that the Vatican-chartered organization suffered from “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The organization was put under the control of several Vatican appointees, ultimately led by Sartain.

Leaders of the LCWR were shocked by the public humiliation of the initial attack, which included criticism of some convention speeches that were more than 30 years old. Many observers noted that while the women’s orders had been largely untainted, the scandal over the sex abuse of minors by priests had done much to erode the male clergy’s moral authority.

In the wake of the Vatican’s action, there was an outpouring of support from the U.S. laity for the nuns’ work in the trenches as teachers, nurses, caregivers, as well as their tireless work on behalf of migrant workers, immigrants, the homeless, prison inmates, and people with disabilities.

“I’m continually stunned by the enormous support we received,” said Sister Mary Hughes, who served two terms as president of the LCWR. “I don’t think we realized the extent our lives have touched others.”

Even the hierarchy seemed to backpedal. In an August 2012 blogpost, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, proclaimed, “We Catholics love the sisters!”

After his election, Pope Francis reaffirmed the actions taken against the LCWR.

But the following month, Francis appeared to send a different signal when speaking to Latin American religious orders:

“They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder; this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you such and such a thing. … But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

Monday’s statement, hammered out after the convention at the Diocese of Orlando’s wooded retreat, was foreshadowed last week by the address of Sister Florence Deacon, the LCWR president, who met with Vatican officials in April. It was titled, “A Delicate Weaving.”

“Because of our experience sharing our gospel ministry with those on the margins, women religious have sometimes been to places the hierarchy could never go, and have seen things they could never see,” said Deacon. “At times our role as women of the gospel results in tension.”

The majority of the sisters, reflecting the demographic of Catholic women religious in the U.S., appeared to be white and middle-aged or older.

At the opening of the assembly, Deacon, who is also superior general of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis, Wis., added: “We are women of the church called on to expand perspectives to create a new reality which recognizes women’s identity, ability, mission and responsibility, both in the church and beyond.”

YS/AMB END PINSKY

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Perpetua and Felicity

    Perpetua and Felicity, a married noble and her slave, an expectant mother, who were martyred in the third century for their Christian beliefs. (Photo: Stained-glass window of St Perpetua of Carthage (church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century): martyrdom of St Perpetua and her fellows in the stadium of Carthage; Saint Felicity on her left.)

  • Lydia

    Lydia, "seller of purple," a businesswoman and homemaker who opened her house to Paul and Silas, and is considered the first recorded European convert to Christianity. (Photo: A modern outdoor chapel on what is said to be the site where Lydia was baptized by Paul.)

  • Joan of Arc

    Joan of Arc, a Roman Catholic saint, who was burned at the stake at age 19.

  • Sojourner Truth

    Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist who famously asked, "Ain't I a woman?"

  • Dorothy Day

    Dorothy Day, an American journalist and devout Catholic, who co-founded the Catholic worker movement.

  • Janet Edwards

    Janet Edwards, Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, Pa., board member of More Light Presbyterians, who was tried and acquitted by her church in 2001 for presiding at the wedding of two women

  • Jane Fonda

    Jane Fonda, feminist, activist, and actress who co-founded the Women's Media Center with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.

  • Leymah Gbowee

    Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, organized a women's peace movement that helped to end civil war in Liberia in 2003. (Photo: Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, speaks during the presentation ceremony of the International Women of Courage Awards at the State Department March 8, 2012 in Washington, DC. Ten women from around the world were presented with the awards during the sixth annual ceremony to recognize their courage and leadership.)

  • Alice Walker

    Alice Walker, whose art birthed one of the most important Christian movements of our time: womanist theology.

  • Melissa Harris-Perry

    Melissa Harris-Perry, American scholar and host of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC. (Photo via <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blX2YHdqUJA" target="_hplink">UCtelevision on YouTube</a>.)

  • Bishop Minerva Carcaño

    Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who broke through the glass ceiling to become the first Latina bishop in the United Methodist Church.

  • Delores Williams

    Delores Williams, one of the founders of black womanist theology.