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A Faith Both Roman and Global: The Future of Catholicism, 2015-2025

05/08/2015 02:25 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016
ANDREAS SOLARO via Getty Images

Ten years ago, in April 2005, a conclave given the arduous task of choosing John Paul II's successor elected Joseph Ratzinger, the obvious candidate, to the papacy.

Some commentators saw Benedict XVI's election as a triumph for elements of John Paul II's legacy: the end of a "social Catholicism" and the beginning of a solidly doctrinal Catholicism. However, it became clear that a purely theological interpretation of the role of the pope was not sufficient for a Catholic Church whose theology relied on interpretation, rather than dictates of the faith.

The surprising retirement of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013 marked the end of a papacy reluctant to take on the full array of duties of the Bishop of Rome: pastoral, ecumenical, interreligious or diplomatic.

By the time Pope Francis was elected on March 13, 2013, the church was more shocked and distraught than it wanted to admit. The polarization within the church is the central issue that will be raised over the next decade: it is not just a political and ideological polarization (as in the United States), but also a polarization between local churches and the Vatican (a rising issue in Germany); between the bishops and new ecclesiastical movements (as in Japan); and between a church focused on missionaries and an institutional church committed to maintaining the status quo (a conflict visible in Italy and throughout the world).

Pope Francis is well aware of these internal polarizations, and that awareness has made the papacy more relevant today than it has been in the past. After two papacies that were widely regarded as not particularly effective in uniting the church, Francis's papacy has been a symbol of unity for worldwide Catholicism.

For the great majority of Catholics who are not intimately familiar with internal Vatican politics, questions regarding the structure of the church seem much less urgent than other issues. But the next decade will prove decisive in showing whether the church has the capacity to reform itself.

The main governing body of the church, the Roman Curia, still closely resembles the one that was first created in 1588; the reforms of the 20th century has largely left its pre-modern infrastructure unchanged. Meanwhile, the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Sant'Uffizio) is still primarily one of censorship, even after Pope Francis's decision to radically restructure the influence of the Congregation during his papacy.

Yet church initiatives over the past decades reveal that internal structural change is still an open question. Pope Paul VI attempted to reform the Curia; John Paul II entrusted Sant'Uffizio with governance; Benedict XVI (who served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981-2005), never viewed the governing of the church as one of his main duties. This is not just a formal question concerning the joint governance, decentralization and democratization of the decision-making process, but an essential question for the church. Those who are familiar with the results of centralization during the years leading up to Pope Francis's papacy (for example: the new English translation of the mass), understand the disastrous problems caused by the "Romanization" -- reorientation towards Rome and the Vatican -- that the Vatican imposed upon a church that has become ever more global.

Upon examination, it becomes obvious that during the last decade, leading up to the election of Pope Francis, this "Romanization" coincided -- particularly during the papacy of Pope Benedict -- with serious threats to the unity of the church, specifically regarding church teachings about sexuality and the role of women.

It is no coincidence that this was also the era when many (not, however, Pope Francis), attempted to relegate the ideas and doctrines of the Second Vatican Council that were not well adapted to modern shifts in attitudes to the archives of history.

Pope Francis has assumed the agenda of Vatican II, and has even brought issues of sexuality and the role of women in the church into discussion, although they were not directly addressed in the council. After a decade of traditionalism encouraged by the Vatican, Pope Francis finally has before him the task of presenting a church that is aware of what can be changed while still maintaining centuries of tradition.

Over next decade, a church that is more global than ever will debate a long list of issues ranging from sexuality and homosexuality, women, marriage and family to social justice and the environment -- a list of causes that have differing degrees of urgency for the different branches of Catholicism.

For this reason, the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, which was convened twice by Pope Francis (both in October 2014 and October 2015 -- an occurrence without precedent), represents a new initiative for a church that will, over the next decade, discover whether the democratic nature of this papacy will endure as one of the defining characteristic of Catholicism in the 21st century (finally acknowledging the dictates of Vatican II), or whether the church is instead destined to remain an imperial system.

This empire is, however, a fragile one, and much different from the one found in previous centuries, including the 20th. The most urgent and important issues to be addressed concern the administration of a church consisting of more than a million adherents with an ever-shrinking body of clerics and members of religious orders, and the persecution of Christians in many countries in Africa and Asia.

In a sense, these two challenges are returning the church to its ancient origins. 2025 will be the anniversary of the first council of the universal church, which was celebrated in Nicea in 325; it could also be an occasion for a new ecumenical council between Catholics and other Christian churches. What Pope Francis has dubbed the "ecumenism of blood" could lead Catholicism onto new, unforeseen paths.

This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post's 10 Year Anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.

This post originally appeared on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.