What does it mean to "have it all" when the roles of Catholic women in the workplace, family life and society are changing and modernizing?

Dr. Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University specializing in religion and family law, says women of faith are finding themselves in empowering, meaningful jobs -- but gender roles are becoming confusing in a world in which several views of feminism still downplay the power of being a mother and wife.

Alvaré, who spoke Friday during a lunchtime lecture at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, that feminism has both helped and hindered Catholic women and advocates that women should see themselves as being equal to men while also embracing gender differences as gifts, not hindrances.

Those differences -- such as the ability to bear children and the "special capacity women have for The Other," or the feelings and needs of others -- can complement what their husbands offer without compromising a woman's professional aspirations or her own identity as a strong woman and feminist, she said.

God has entrusted women to new lives, Alvaré said during her talk, which was part of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought. The institute is a theological and intellectual organization that hosts lectures throughout the year in which prominent thinkers give presentations about topics such as the New Testament. It also partners with the University of Colorado to host an annual Great Debate lecture in which experts debate controversial topics that sometimes have Catholic ties.

Alvaré said the new pope, Pope Francis, has opened the door for more in-depth discussions about where and how women can fit into the Catholic faith. Yet, the pope has not set out clear guidelines about where and how those roles might change.

"It's up to us to fill in the blanks," Alvaré said.

To do that, Alvaré said, she went back to the teachings of another pope, John Paul II, who was pontiff from 1978 until his death in 2005. She referenced John Paul II's document, "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Mulieris Dignitatem," which says men and women have complementary roles in relationships and society.

Pope Francis just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the "Mulieris Dignitatem," which was the first papal teaching dedicated solely to the theme of women and their roles in Catholicism.

Alvaré said she grew up during the '70s, when it was common for feminists of the time to reject the idea of becoming mothers, instead focusing on making themselves equal to men by breaking into male-dominated careers and taking on "male tendencies" such as being more assertive.

As a young person, she wholeheartedly bought into the idea. Yet she now says that motherhood and parenting is a major strength for Catholic women -- a gift they can give their families while also pursuing careers.

Alvaré says theological arguments support the argument that men and women have different strengths, perspectives and roles but that both sexes have equal worth and importance.

Women should be valued in their role as child-bearers, both culturally and economically, but don't have to fall to the role of homemaker, she said.

In her lecture Friday, Alvaré called her presentation on women's roles in modern-day Catholicism "criminally brief" and said conversations could go much deeper than the two-hour luncheon allowed. Yet, she said some of her key points could be jumping-off points for other Catholic women, who are hoping to balance family life, careers and children while interpreting their choices through the lens of the Catholic faith.

Friday's was the last Aquinas Institute lecture of 2013, but Scott Powell, director of scriptural theology at St. Thomas Aquinas, 898 14th St., Boulder, said the next lecture event will be the annual Great Debate on Jan. 31.

This year's Great Debate topic is about the morality of the death penalty.

"It's going to be a really great discussion," Powell said.

Megan Quinn writes a faith column once a week for the Camera. Contact her at quinnm@dailycamera.com.