Sister Anne Nasimiyu of Kenya, right, and Sister Lucy Marindany of Milwaukee, Wisc., join other members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The largest U.S. group for Roman Catholic nuns met to decide how they should respond to a Vatican rebuke and order for reform. (Seth Perlman/AP)

American nuns on Friday backed away from a direct confrontation with the Vatican, saying they want a respectful “open dialogue” with Rome about disputes over gender, human sexuality and authority.

The decision by the Silver Spring-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American nuns, came at the end of an intense annual conference in St. Louis this week, where about 900 women met to decide how to respond to an April report by the Vatican saying the group had strayed dangerously far from orthodoxy and the pope and needs to be “reformed.”

The women considered generally accepting the report, rejecting it and becoming an independent Catholic organization (rather than an actual office of Rome), or finding some middle ground.

In a statement Friday, the women said that members want to pursue dialogue with the three-bishop team appointed by the Vatican to approve their conference speakers, literature and training programs.

The women’s expectation is that “open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.”

Conference leaders “will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission,” the statement read.

Different reactions to the nuns’ decision showed the fragile and divided state of American Catholics over everything from gender roles and the purpose of sex to what it means to submit to authority.

Some experts said the women’s announcement that they wouldn’t simply comply may be viewed as defiance. Others said their decision not to disaffiliate their group from Rome mirrored the frustrations of liberal Catholics who stay close to the church because they think they can sway a Vatican laser-focused on enforcing orthodoxy.

“Both sides in the standoff speak of ‘dialogue,’ but they seem to mean different things,” said R. Scott Appleby, a historian at Notre Dame. Leading bishops “understand dialogue as a conversation about how best to implement the pope’s vision of religious life and witness. The sisters mean an open-ended give-and-take that is more of a mutual discernment of where the Spirit is leading the Church at a given moment in history.”

While the women were never discussing leaving Catholicism, the concept that sisters — the very icons of Catholic dutifuless — could consider taking an official step away from Rome was extraordinary.

Historians said the standoff was the most far-reaching in American Catholicism. There have been conflicts between Rome and individual orders or theologians, but the Leadership Conference represents the vast majority of the country’s 56,000 sisters.

“They’re saying it’s only about doctrine. But for us, the dialogue is about reflecting on our lives out of Gospel. Theology in our view is about exploration and discovery. They think that’s wrong. It’s like cutting the heart out of who we are,” said Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington who this summer led nuns on a well-publicized tour called “Nuns on the Bus,” meant to respond to the Vatican report with more visibility.

Asked if the differences were more about free debate or if even hot-button issues such as contraception were on the table, Campbell said: “Absolutely. Theologies have evolved over two millennia. When Jesus died and rose, it wasn’t all settled.”

But leading bishops said nuns have no right to question official teachings of the pope.

“How in the world can these consecrated religious who have professed to follow Christ more closely . . . be opposed to what the Vicar of Christ is asking? This is a contradiction,” Cardinal Raymond Burke, leader of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, told Catholic TV station EWTN. “If it can’t be reformed, then it doesn’t have a right to continue.”

Some were celebrating a standoff avoided — for now.

“LCWR agrees to dialog with [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] reps. Step one accomplished. When both sides listen there is progress,” tweeted Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The number of nuns — and priests — is shrinking in the United States, but they retain enormous clout in the developing world, where the majority of Catholics now live.

The stakes were reflected in the emotions on display at the conference. Asked why she and others were crying during an opening prayer Thursday, Sister Mary Waskowiak said at a news conference that she was moved by the questions of the week: “What does it mean to surrender? What is truly being asked of me, truly being asked of us?”