The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is not folding in the face of criticism by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In a tough statement today, the organization challenged both the process through which they were called on the carpet, and the content of the criticism.

Here is the key paragraph of the LCWR statement after a two-day meeting of its board:

The board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared.  Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

That is unusually direct language, not the sort of talk bishops are accustomed to. Significantly, the statement added that the board “believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity.” Note that reference to “the entire Church community.” The nuns are telling the American bishops and the Vatican that they are not prepared to settle this matter quietly, and that the Church leadership needs to take account the views of all Catholics.

Many Catholics — I am one of them — will appreciate the fact that the sisters are not simply caving in. The process was flawed and unfair. The sanctions, involving the appointment of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to reorganize the Conference, were disproportionate. I also think the Vatican will come to regret that it specifically associated the LCWR with “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” How could the most important women in the Church structure not feel challenged to stand up for themselves in the face of such criticism from the men who hold positions of authority? Should it be surprising that women who have contributed so much to Catholicism and the world might have questions about the role of women in the Church?

One would like to hope that it is significant that Archbishop Sartain responded to the LCWR’s statement with a conciliatory statement of his own. He expressed his commitment to trying to encourage an “atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the Church’s faith.” He added: “The Holy See and the Bishops of the United States are deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution of women religious – a pride that has been echoed by many in recent weeks. Dramatic examples of this can be witnessed in the school system and in the network of Catholic hospitals established by sisters across America which are lasting contributions to the wellbeing of our country.” Clearly, he and other bishops have been hearing from a lot of Catholics who deeply admire the work of the nuns and are not happy about the Vatican’s move. The archbishop also published an essay in America magazine, the national Jesuit weekly widely read by moderate and liberal Catholics, the bulk of which was devoted to praising the sisters.

The next move in the controversy will be a June 12 meeting in Rome involving the LCWR president and executive director, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Prefect William Levada, and Archbishop Sartain. Afterward, the nuns group plans to “gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response to the CDF report.”

Progressives Catholics are alarmed by a lot of things these days, but I don’t think anything galvanized them like the move against the sisters. I hope the bishops are aware of how much discontent they are creating across a broad front among faithful Mass-attending Catholics who see the institution’s leadership lurching sharply to the right. Ever since I wrote a column in which I explained why I am not quitting the Church, I have heard from a lot of Catholics who are thinking of doing just that, or already have. Surely the bishops don’t want to shrink a great institution into a modest-sized sect. I’d like to hope that the Holy Spirit is operating through the nuns.