Leaders representing most American nuns on Friday issued a surprisingly forceful response to a Vatican report calling for their reform, saying the report had caused “scandal and pain” among Catholics.

Reactions among Catholics to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’s statement were strong and polarized, typical of a faith community divided between those anxious to see Catholic theology more explicitly outlined — and enforced — and those who want more openness on everything from ideas on human sexuality to how decisions are made at the top of the church.

The statement by the Conference’s 21-member board came after a special three-day meeting about how to respond to the Vatican report. The report had accused the group of “radical feminism” and of publicly undermining the bishops’ leadership.

The Conference’s 1,500 members represent the vast majority of the country’s 57,000 nuns.

Vigils had popped up across the country in support of the nuns in recent days, and the women became so concerned about attracting controversy that they wouldn’t reveal where their board meeting was held — only that it was in the Washington area.

The full Conference will meet in August to determine more specifically how to react, but Friday’s statement seemed to imply that the women may choose to rebel.

“The sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise [the nuns’] ability to fulfill their mission,” Friday’s statement said.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of American Catholicism, said the statement showed that the women were “unintimidated, committed to dialogue, and above all focused on working toward a more just society.”

But others said it foreshadows continued division in the church.

“What worries me here is the emergence of an adversarial view of membership in the church,” said Michael Sean Winters, a left-leaning Catholic writer.

The April report by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assigned a Seattle archbishop to oversee an overhaul of the Conference, including possibly changing the group’s statutesAt issue in the report was whether the Conference has strayed too far from church norms and the priorities of the bishops. The bishops have focused publicly on opposing same-sex marriage and fighting the White House’s mandate requiring employers to provide contraception in health-care packages.

The Conference has focused more on such issues as personal piety and poverty and is open to spiritual ideas that orthodox Catholics might see as heretical.

The group’s statement said that the Conference’s president, Sister Pat Farrell, and executive director, Sister Janet Mock, will return to Rome on June 12 to meet with officials about the women’s concerns. One option on the table is to have the group break from its official status as a church organization and become independent.