As the world marks International Women’s Day, Catholic women from around the world have hailed recent steps made, but called for more to be done to create space for them in positions that matter in the Church.

They also called for a reexamination of the Church’s “complementarity theology” – the view that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership.

The concept of complementarity has long been used as a defense of the Catholic Church’s longstanding ban on women priests, with Pope John Paul II frequently invoking complementarity as why the ordained priesthood is better suited to male gifts and talents.

During a March 6 panel ahead of International Women’s Day, Catholic women theologians and leaders urged a reexamination of complementarity, saying that while valid, some interpretations have created a split between what is considered masculine and feminine.

The panel was titled “Women Leaders: Towards a brighter future,” and was organized jointly by Caritas International and the British and Australian Embassies to the Holy See.

Speaking on the panel, Christiane Murray, deputy director of the Holy See Press Office, said women bring a “fresh and innovative” perspective to the Vatican, but lamented that when a woman is appointed to a leadership role in the curia, she is defined as a power-player, while the same is not said of men who receive the same appointments.

“It’s as if there is an aura of power,” she said, insisting the job is not about power, but service.

She also hit back against what she said are gender stereotypes, saying, “Traditionally, qualities such as graciousness, delicacy, care, empathy, these qualities are always associated with femininity.”

“However, it’s important to note that these characteristics are not intrinsically tied to gender, but they are social constructs that can be experienced and expressed also by individuals of the masculine sex,” she said, as the room applauded.

Similarly, Dr. Maeve Heaney, a consecrated member of Verbum Dei and Director of the Xavier Center for Theological Formation at the Australian Catholic University, said women’s leadership is a theological issue, and touched specifically on complementarity.

“Certain theological anthropologies essentialize too much what men and women bring to the table in ways that are unhelpful and not reflective of real human experience,” she said, saying these anthropological perspectives typically refer to complementarity between men and women.

While true, complementarity at times names “the contribution of women as essentially different to that of men, pitching love, spirituality and nurturing against authority, leadership and intellect.”

“I’m not suggesting there are no differences between women and men, I’m simply asking us not to radicalize or essentialize them,” she said.

To this end, she referred to the Petrine and Marian principles of Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, which are frequently invoked by Pope Francis to illustrate why women can play a more important role in the Church, even if they are not ordained.

Heaney in her presentation hailed von Balthazar as “a genius,” but said his work “did not have enough checks and balances.”

“His complementarity theology, in my opinion, is incomplete as it over-emphasizes the maleness of Jesus and femaleness of the Church, presenting women as receptive and spiritual, the counterpart and at times answer to men’s more proactive and intellectual nature,” she said.

Complementarity itself is not a problem, she said, saying the issue, in her view, is when gender roles are “radically” contrasted in the Church, “especially when those are built on power roles.”

She also called for a reexamination of the Church’s theology of ordination, saying “In its current form, our theology of ordained ministry…links decision making in all spheres to ordination, yet in our baptism we are all introduced to Christ and are called prophets, priests, and kings.”

This means everyone has a role to play, she said, saying the ordained ministry is necessary, but it can change.

“I’m not saying women should be allowed, but I’m not saying they should not. That is not the issue I’m identifying,” Heaney said, saying a “robust” reflection is needed at various levels “to untie the knot between governance and power and the ministerial priesthood and thus allow women and other lay people” to play a greater role in decision-making.

Complementarity, she said, “emerged at the moment when the Church was saying women can’t be ordained. I’m not entering into that issue, but I think they were looking for a way to theologically value women while saying you can’t have power.”

What needs to happen, she said, is a deep rethinking of the theology of ordination “so we don’t have all ministerial priesthood and power over here, and therefore women over here trying to give something different.”

Asked about Pope Francis’s frequent reference to von Balthazar’s Petrine and Marian concepts, Heaney said the reflection on the topic of synodality and collaborative leadership is just beginning, and “sometimes we ask too much of one person, not just the pope, but all leaders.”

“Not every word that comes out of any pope’s mouth is magisterial. We’ve all been theologically formed, we all need to keep up to date with that, even popes and bishops,” she said.

Spanish nun Linda Pocher, who has addressed the issue of women in the Church during the past two meetings of the Council of Cardinals, the pope’s top advisory body and who appears to be a close papal advisor on the issue of women, has also taken issue with von Balthazar’s Petrine and Marian principles.

In a written message to the conference, Pope Francis invoked “God’s gift of wisdom” for the conference and offered prayers that the discussion would “bear fruit in an ever greater commitment on the part of all, in the Church and across the world, to promote respect for the equal and complementary dignity of women and men.”

One ambassador participating in Wednesday’s panel noted that gender biases are experienced even at the diplomatic level, saying men in diplomatic service are often assigned to areas of disarmament and security, while women are given softer issues and social projects.

Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Chiara Porro lamented the double standard women in leadership face, needing to stand out to reach the top, while being facing “bias” for being confident and scrutiny for how they exercise leadership.

Sister Patricia Murray, Secretary General of the International Union of Superiors General, highlighted the role that women religious play in the Church, often on the peripheries and on the frontlines of issues such as poverty, human trafficking and migration.

Quoting her order’s foundress, she said, “there is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things,” and lauded the many ways she said women’s voices are now being heard in the Church.

She voiced appreciation for the increased presence of women in the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which saw women cast a vote for the first time in a Rome-based gathering last year.

Issues such as female diaconate, the possibility of women preaching, and the potential creation of other ministries are being considered, she said, saying, “this is not a quick process, it will take time, even beyond the second session of the synod, and it requires deep listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Similarly, Sister Nathalie Becquart, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, the first woman to hold the position, praised the synod’s aim of making the Church “less bureaucratic and more relational.”

The role of women and the desire to create more space for them in leadership is “a sign of the times,” she said, saying “the Church has to be attentive to the voices of women who seek greater equality.”

“There is a great desire to participate more in the life of the Church, especially in decision-making processes,” she said, but cautioned that when it comes to what this should look like, “We cannot speak about ‘the woman’ in the Church, there are many women in the Church with a diversity of experiences.”

She said her own experience working as a woman in leadership in the Vatican has been a mixed bag, and that “the Church is like our families, some are better at some things that others.”

“I have some good collaborative experience working with cardinals and bishops, and sometimes with others its difficult because of culture, education, and background,” she said, but called the experience an “adventure” and “very rich.”

Speaking to Crux, Becquart addressed concerns that discussion about women’s inclusion in leadership has been dominated by an overly western perspective, saying that temptation is there, but the synod itself has heard everyone.

“All our national synthesis from all over the world highlighted the request for more recognition of the role of women. There was a strong call from everywhere for more women leadership in the Church, for more women’s participation. That’s common from everywhere,” she said.

Where differences occur, she said, is in what women’s participation ought to look like.

Some people “strongly advocate for the female diaconate. It’s not only in western countries, it can also be in other places, but it’s not everywhere,” noting that in the United States, women already occupy important roles such as diocesan chancellors and lay ministers.

“In other countries there is not exactly the same experience, so … for what has to be decided at the universal level, you have to take account of all this diversity. You have to recognize, acknowledge and respect the local cultures,” she said, saying, “That’s also very important for western people, also us in Europe and the United States.”

She stressed the need for “decentralization” on certain issues, saying, “there are things you would do in some parts of the world,” but not in others, “so we already have that kind of diversity.”

“I think the synod has really been a process to hear more from the diversity of voices, especially from the different continents. Our Church, like our world, is multipolar,” she said, saying women already play a role in all priority areas, whether it be climate change, migration, or the quest for peace amid conflict.