ROME – After completing a massive overhaul of the Roman curia in 2022, Pope Francis has turned his attention to women as the next step in his reform efforts, inviting several female theologians and even a female Anglican bishop to address his “kitchen cabinet.”

For the past two sessions of his Council of Cardinals, women theologians have been invited to offer their input on women’s roles in the Church, one of the hottest topics of debate in Catholicism today and a key point of discussion during the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Most recently, the group was joined by a female Anglican bishop best known for declaring that gender equality is part of God’s plan, along with two Italian women, one an expert on Mary and the other specialized in spiritual dance.

In a speech to the International Theological Commission on Nov. 30, Francis said more women should be members and there was a need to “demasculinize the Church,” offering a reflection, as he often has, on the Marian and Petrine principles outlined by the late Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

During a Dec. 4-5 meeting of the Council of Cardinals, a group of cardinals from around the world who advise the pope on matters of Church governance and reform, the Vatican issued a statement saying the topic of “the role of women in the Church” was a central point of reflection.

Referred to as the “C9,” the council was first established in 2013 to assist Pope Francis with the revision of the Roman Curia, which was completed in 2022 with the publication of Praedicate Evangelium, outlining the curia’s new structure and function.

New members were appointed to the C9 in March 2023, and it is now composed of several close papal aides: Cardinals Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State; Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and the Governorate of Vatican City State; Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa; Oswald Gracias of Bombay; Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston; Juan José Omella Omella of Barcelona; Gérald Lacroix of Québec; Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg; and Sérgio da Rocha of San Salvador de Bahia.

During the December meeting, two women were also invited to the table: Sister Linda Pocher, a Salesian and professor of Christology and Mariology at the Pontifical Faculty of Education Auxilium run by her order, and Lucia Vantini, a professor of theology, philosophy and religion. Father Luca Castiglioni, a professor of fundamental theology at the diocesan seminary of Milan, also participated in that meeting.

Pocher, Vantini, and Castiglioni published a book on Jan. 24 titled, “Demasculinizing the Church? Critical comparisons on the ‘Principles’ of H.U. Von Balthasar,” the preface for which was written by Pope Francis, a careful student of Von Balthasar’s work.

The C9 is meeting again this week, from Feb. 5-6, with discussion continuing on the role of women in the Church, according to a Vatican statement.

Pocher is again among the participants, along with Giuliva Di Berardino, a consecrated virgin from the Diocese of Verona and a professor of spirituality, and Reverend Jo Bailey Wells, a bishop and deputy secretary general of the Anglican Communion.

Though the women are not officially members of the Council of Cardinals, given the current topic of discussion their presence at working sessions is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, which signals a new step for women when it comes to having a seat at the table.

Supporters have hailed the inclusion of the women, especially Wells, as marking significant progress in the effort to make the church more inclusive and welcoming of all voices, implementing the concept of “synodality” at the highest echelons of Catholicism.

Critics, however, have taken issue with the inclusion not only of a non-Catholic, but a woman bishop, which is seen by skeptics as a nod to Catholic voices in favor of women’s ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood.

Wells, who is married to an Anglican priest and has two children, taught theology at Cambridge until becoming Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion and has written several books and regularly speaks out on the role of women in leading society.

At a high-profile interfaith summit in Kazakhstan in 2022, which was also attended by Pope Francis, Wells complained about the treatment of women to a largely male audience, arguing that “gender equality is part of God’s plan.”

Di Berardino is an expert in Biblical dance, expressing praise and worship to God through dance, and has reflected extensively in writing and at various workshops on theology of the body and dance. She recently published the book, Danzare la Misericordia, “Dancing Mercy,” in which she describes a spirituality of the dance of praise from a biblical basis.

Pocher, also an Italian, spoke in an interview with Spanish magazine Vida Nueva in December, saying her goal at the C9 session was to show “the limits” of von Balthasar’s thought, and to propose new ways of building on his contributions.

Pocher said that the issue of women in the Catholic Church is “complex,” and must be addressed “without falling into simplifications.”

“Women are not a ‘social class,’ no a ‘political group,’ and not all think in the same way or have the same experiences or the same desires,” she said, noting that women have always been among the Church’s most active protagonists, yet “in almost all contexts, more or less aggressive forms of machismo or clericalism continue to be found.”

She said the ongoing Synod on Synodality can help rectify these attitudes, and argued that the benefit of reflecting extensively on von Balthasar’s Marian principle is that it can help church hierarchs “to remember that the Church is not only an institution (Petrine principle), but also mysticism, spirituality, love.”

According to von Balthasar, she said, Mary “precedes Peter and is more important than him in the economy of salvation.”

The limitation of this thought,” Pocher said, in her view is “the easy identification between women and the ‘Marian principle’ and men and the ‘Petrine principle.’ This identification is not good for the Church, because it makes roles rigid and makes the mutual exchange of gifts difficult.”

“In reality, both the Marian principle and the Petrine principle belong to men and women, and are carried out differently in each person, also depending on their sensitivity and characteristics,” she said.

During last October’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, the topics of women priests, the women’s diaconate, and the role of women in the Church in general were among the most debated and contested issues.

The role of women in the Church was one of the most widely addressed issues in the global consultation process leading up to the synod, with laity, clerics and religious alike wanting to address the topic, but with no unified approach or vision for it meant to give women more space.

Discussion will continue with the second half of the synod in October of this year, and once again the issue of women likely will be among the main talking points.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen