Second Vatican Council

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  • The Second Vatican
  • Ecumenical Council
  • Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum  (Latin)
Petersdom von Engelsburg gesehen.jpg
Date11 October 1962 (11 October 1962)–8 December 1965 (8 December 1965)
Accepted byCatholic Church
Previous council
First Vatican Council (1869–1870)
Convoked byPope John XXIII
AttendanceUp to 2,625[1]
TopicsComplete unfinished task of Vatican I and ecumenical outreach to address needs of modern world
Documents and statements
Four constitutions:

Three declarations:

Nine decrees:

Chronological list of ecumenical councils

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, commonly known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. The council met in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for four periods (or sessions), each lasting between 8 and 12 weeks, in the autumn of each of the four years 1962 to 1965. Preparation for the council took three years, from the summer of 1959 to the autumn of 1962. The council was opened on 11 October 1962 by John XXIII (pope during the preparation and the first session), and was closed on 8 December 1965 by Paul VI (pope during the last three sessions, after the death of John XXIII on 3 June 1963).

Pope John XXIII called the Council because he felt the Church needed “updating” (in Italian: aggiornamento). In order to connect with 20th century people in an increasingly secularized world, some of the Church's practices needed to be improved, and its teaching needed to be presented in a way that would appear relevant and understandable to them. Many Council participants were sympathetic to this program, while others saw little need for change and resisted efforts in that direction. But support for aggiornamento won out over resistance to change, and as a result the sixteen magisterial documents produced by the council proposed significant developments in doctrine and practice: an extensive reform of the liturgy, a renewed theology of the Church, of revelation and of the laity, a new approach to relations between the Church and the world, to ecumenism, to non-Christian religions and to religious freedom.

John W. O'Malley called this council "the most important religious event of the twentieth century".[2]


Since the end of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had felt itself under siege by hostile forces spawned by the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the secular State that became dominant following the French Revolution. The reaction to these forces was the centralization of authority in Rome (Ultramontanism) and a fortress mentality which expressed itself in a consistently negative attitude toward the modern world, and regular condemnations of the ideas or individuals that embodied its errors. The First Vatican Council, with its definition of papal primacy and papal infallibility, represented the high-water mark of Ultramontanism. The only acceptable theology was one based on the twin pillars of Neo-scholasticism and the encyclicals of the recent popes. When this proved insufficient to stop new ideas such as the use of the historical-critical method in Bible studies or new historical studies that cast doubt on the standard narrative of Church history, pope Pius X issued his 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, which identified and condemned a new heresy called modernism, which was claimed to be the embodiment of all these new ideas. The battle against modernism marked the first half of the 20th century.

But still there were signs of new growth in various corners of the Church.

The Liturgical movement

19th century scholarly research into the liturgy of the first centuries showed how far the current liturgy had departed from the earlier practice, where the congregation was actively involved, responding and singing in its own language. But now the mass was in Latin, and the congregation observed in silence the ritual performed by the priest at the altar. This realization inspired a modest movement to get the congregation involved in the mass, to get them to respond and to sing those parts of the mass that belonged to them. Some even proposed that Latin be replaced by the language of the people. The liturgical movement was greeted with considerable caution by Church authorities. In the early 1950s, there was a significant reform of the ceremonies of Holy Week, but by the early 1960s, little else had changed.

The Ecumenical Movement

The term “ecumenism” came into use in the 20th century to refer to efforts – initially among Protestants – towards the reunification of Christians. Initially, the Catholic Church was hostile to the ecumenical movement. The traditional position of the Church was that Catholics had nothing to learn from Protestants and the only way Christian unity would happen was when non-Catholics returned to the Catholic Church. Collaboration with non-Catholics was forbidden. By the early 1950s, there was a modest ecumenical movement within the Catholic Church, but it had little support from the authorities.

The Biblical movement

In 1960, the overwhelming majority of Catholics had never read the Bible or even owned one. For most Catholics, personal reading of the Bible was something only Protestants did. But among Catholic theologians and pastors there had developed a renewed interest in the Bible in the 20th century. Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino afflante spiritu gave a renewed impetus to Catholic Bible studies and encouraged the production of new Bible translations from the original languages. This led to a pastoral attempt to get ordinary Catholics to re-discover the Bible, to read it, to make it a source of their spiritual life. This found a response in very limited circles. By 1960, it was still in its infancy.

Ressourcement and Nouvelle théologie

By the 1930s, mainstream theology based on neo-scholasticism and papal encyclicals was being rejected by some theologians as dry and uninspiring. Thus, was born the movement called ressourcement, the return to the sources: basing theology directly on the Bible and the Church Fathers. Some theologians also began to discuss new topics, such as the historical dimension of theology, the theology of work, ecumenism, the theology of the laity, the theology of “earthly realities”.[3] All these writings in a new style that came to be called “la nouvelle théologie”, and they soon attracted Rome's attention.

The reaction came in 1950. That year Pius XII published Humani generis, an encyclical “concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine”. Without naming names, he criticized those who advocated new ways of doing theology. Everyone understood the encyclical was directly against the nouvelle théologie as well as developments in ecumenism and Bible studies. Some of these works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, and some of the authors were forbidden to teach or to publish. Those who suffered most were the Jesuit Henri de Lubac and the Dominican Yves Congar, who were unable to teach or publish until the death of Pius XII in 1958. By the early 1960s, other theologians under suspicion included the Jesuit Karl Rahner and the young Hans Küng.

Such was the situation at the death of Pius XII in 1958. Would these new ideas be suppressed or would they be allowed to survive, or maybe even receive the blessing of the Church under a new pope?

In addition, there was the unfinished business of the First Vatican Council (1869-70). When it had been cut short by the Italian Army's entry into Rome at the end of Italian unification, the only topics that had been completed were the theology of the papacy and the relationship of faith and reason, while the theology of the bishop and of the laity were left unaddressed.[4][5]

At the same time, the world's bishops were facing challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Some of these bishops were seeking new ways of addressing those challenges. What could they expect from Pius XII's successor?


Before a papal Mass at the Council; area between papal altar and apse/cathedra altar, in front of it the seat of the pope.

Announcement and Expectations[edit]

John XXIII gave notice of his intention to convene the council on 25 January 1959, less than three months after his election in October 1958.[6] His announcement in the chapter hall of the Benedictine monastery attached to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome came as a surprise even to the cardinals present.[7][8]

He had tested the idea only ten days before with one of them, his Cardinal Secretary of State Domenico Tardini, who gave enthusiastic support to the idea.[9] Although the pope later said the idea came to him in a flash in his conversation with Tardini, two cardinals had earlier attempted to interest him in the idea. They were two of the most conservative, Ernesto Ruffini and Alfredo Ottaviani, who had already in 1948 proposed the idea to Pius XII and who put it before John XXIII on 27 October 1958.[10]

Reaction to the announcement was widespread and largely positive from both religious and secular leaders outside the Catholic Church,[11]

The council was formally summoned by the apostolic constitution Humanae Salutis on 25 December 1961.[12][13]

In various discussions before the council convened, John XXIII said that it was time to "open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air".[14]


It took over three years – from the summer of 1959 to the autumn of 1962 – to get ready for the Council. The first year (known officially as the “antepreparatory period”) was devoted to a vast consultation of the Catholic world concerning topics to be examined at the Council, while the other two years (known officially as the “preparatory period”) were occupied with drafting the documents, called schemas, that would be submitted to the bishops for discussion at the Council.

In the summer of 1959 a letter was sent to 3 groups of people asking them to list any issues they thought needed discussing at the Council. The 3 groups were: the bishops of the world, the Catholic universities and faculties of theology, and the departments of the Curia. A year later, some 9,000 individual vota (“wishes”) had been received. Some were typical of past ways of doing things, asking for new dogmatic definitions or condemnations of errors. Others were in the spirit of aggiornamento, asking for reforms and new ways of doing things.

In the summer of 1960, ten Preparatory Commissions were created, tasked with drafting the schemas that would be submitted to the Council. Each preparatory commission had the same area of responsibility as one of the main departments of the Curia and was chaired by the cardinal who headed that department. From the 9000 proposals, a list of topics was created, and these topics were parcelled out to these commissions according to their area of competence. Some commissions prepared a schema for each topic they were asked to treat, others a single schema encompassing all the topics they were handed.

These were the preparatory commissions and the number of schemas they drafted:

Preparatory Commission Schemas
Theology 9
Bishops and Dioceses 7
Discipline of Clergy and Faithful 17
Religious 1
Eastern Catholic Churches 11
Liturgy 1
Discipline of Sacraments 10
Studies and Seminaries 6
Missions 1
Apostolate of the Laity 1

Two secretariats – one an existing Vatican office, the other a new body – also had a part in drafting schemas:

Secretariat Schemas
Modern Means of Communication 1
Promotion of Christian Unity 5

The total number of schemas was 70. As most of these preparatory commissions and secretariats were fairly conservative, the schemas they produced showed only modest signs of updating. The two notable exceptions were the preparatory commission for liturgy and the Secretariat for Christian unity, whose schemas were very much in favour of renewal. The schemas prepared by the preparatory commission for theology, dominated by officials of the Holy Office (the curial department for theological orthodoxy) showed no aggiornamento at all.

In addition to these specialist commissions and secretariats, there was a Central Preparatory Commission, tasked with approving and revising all the schemas prepared by the other commissions. It was a large body of over 100 members, including two thirds of the cardinals. As a result of its work, 22 schemas were eliminated from the conciliar agenda, many because they could be dealt with during a planned revision of the Code of Canon Law after the Council, and a number of schemas were consolidated and merged, with the result that the total number of schemas was whittled down from 70 to 22.


Council Fathers. All the bishops of the world, as well as the heads of the main religious orders of men, were entitled to be "Council Fathers", that is, full participants with the right to speak and vote. Their number was about 2,900, though about 500 of them would be unable to attend, either for reasons of health or old age, or because the Communist authorities of their country would not let them leave. The Coiuncil Fathers in attendance represented 79 countries: 38% were from Europe, 31% from the Americas, 20% from Asia & Oceania, and 10% from Africa. (At Vatican I a century earlier there were 737 Council Fathers, mostly from Europe,[15]) At Vatican II, some 250 bishops were native-born Asians and Africans, whereas at Vatican I, there were none at all.

General Congregations. The Council Fathers met in daily sittings — known as General Congregations — to discuss the schemas. and vote on them. These sittings took place in St. Peter's Basilica every morning until 12:30 Monday to Saturday (except Thursday). The average daily attendance was about 2,200. Stands with tiers of seats for all the Council Fathers had been built on both sides of the central nave of St. Peter's. During the first session, a Council of Presidents, of 10 cardinals, was responsible for presiding over the general assemblies, its members taking turns chairing each day's sitting. During the other sessions, this task belonged to a council of 4 Moderators.

Speeches were limited to 10 minutes and had to be in Latin. They were to be written out beforehand, then delivered verbatim and handed in for the record. Thus, proceedings did not consist in spontaneous debate, but in the reading of Latin speeches.

All votes required a two-thirds majority. For each schema, after a preliminary discussion there was a vote whether it was considered acceptable in principle, or rejected. If acceptable, debate continued with votes on individual chapters and paragraphs. Bishops could submit amendments, which were then written into the schema if they were requested by many bishops. Votes continued in this way until wide agreement was reached, after which there was a final vote on a document. This was followed later by a sitting where the Pope promulgated the document as the official teaching of the Council. There was an unwritten rule that, in order to be considered official Church teaching, a document had to receive an overwhelming majority of votes, somewhere in the area of 90%. This led to many compromises, as well as formulations that were broad enough to be acceptable by people on either side of an issue.

All General Congregations were closed to the public. Council Fathers were under an obligation not to reveal anything that went on in the daily sittings. Secrecy soon broke down, and much information about the daily General Congregations was leaked to the press.

The Pope did not attend General Congregations, but followed the deliberations on closed-circuit television.

Public Sessions. These were similar to General Congregations, except that they were open to the press and television, and the Pope was present. There were 10 public sessions in the course of the Council: the opening day of each of the Council's four periods, 5 days when the Pope promulgated Council documents, and the final day of the Council.

Commissions. Much of the detailed work of the Council was done in these commissions. Like the preparatory commissions during the preparatory period, they were 10 in number, each covering the same area of Church life as a particular curial department and chaired by the cardinal who headed that department. Each commission included 25 Council Fathers (16 elected by the Council and 9 appointed by the Pope) as well as consultors (official periti appointed by the pope). In addition, the Secretariat for Christian Unity, appointed during the preparatory period, continued to exist with the same powers as a commission.The commissions were tasked with revising the schemas as Council Fathers submitted amendments. They met in the afternoons or evenings. Procedure was more informal than in the general assemblies: there was spontaneous debate, sometimes heated, and Latin was not always used. Like the General Congregations, they were closed to the public and subject to the same rules of secrecy.

Official Periti. These experts were appointed by the Pope to advise the Council Fathers, and were assigned as consultors to the commissions, where they played an important part in re-writing the Council documents. At the beginning of the Council, there were 224 official periti, but their number would eventually rise to 480. The theologians who had been silenced during the 1940s and 1950s, such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, and some theologians who were under suspicion in Roman circles at the beginning of the 1960s, such as Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, were appointed periti because of their expertise. Their appointment served to vindicate their ideas and gave them a platform from which they could work to further their views.

Observers. An important innovation was the invitation by Pope John to Orthodox and Protestant Churches to send observers to the Council. Eventually 21 denominations or bodies such as the World Council of Churches were represented.[16][15][17][a] The observers were entitled to sit in on all general assemblies (but not the commissions) and they mingled with the Council Fathers during the breaks and let them know their reactions to speeches or to schemas. Their presence helped to break down centuries of mistrust.

Personal theologians. Each bishop was allowed to bring along a personal theological adviser of his choice. For instance, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Küng first went to the Council as some bishop's personal theologian, and were later appointed official periti. Like the periti, they gave informal talks to groups of bishops, bringing them up to date on developments in their particular area of expertise.

Lay auditors. Beginning with the Second Session, a small number of lay people were invited to attend as “auditors”. A few of them were asked to address the Council about their concerns as lay people. The first auditors were all male, but beginning with the third session, a number of women were also appointed.

A Catholic priest celebrating Tridentine Mass, the form of the Mass prevalent before the Council, showing the chalice after the consecration.

First Period: 1962 (11 October – 8 December)[edit]


John XXIII opened the council on 11 October 1962 in a public session at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City[19] and read the declaration Gaudet Mater Ecclesia before the council Fathers.

What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men's moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else. (Roncalli, Angelo Giuseppe, "Opening address", Council, Rome, IT.)


The first working session of the council was on 13 October 1962. That day's agenda included the election of members of the ten conciliar commissions. Each commission would have sixteen elected and eight appointed members, and they were expected to do most of the work of the Council.[20] It had been expected that the members of the preparatory commissions, where the Curia was heavily represented, would be confirmed as the majorities on the conciliar commissions.[21][22] But senior French Cardinal Achille Liénart addressed the Council, saying that the bishops could not intelligently vote for strangers. He asked that the vote be postponed to give all the bishops a chance to draw up their own lists. German Cardinal Josef Frings seconded that proposal, and the vote was postponed.[22] The first meeting of the council adjourned after only fifteen minutes.[23]

A contemporary Mass in modern practice, as versus populum became the common posture and gesture practised after the council. The priest faces the congregation, while vestments and artwork are less ornate.

The bishops met to discuss the membership of the commissions, along with other issues, both in national and regional groups, as well as in gatherings that were more informal. The original schemata (Latin for drafts) from the preparatory sessions, drawn up by Sebastiaan Tromp, the secretary of the Preparatory Theological Commission, were rejected by an alliance of liberal-leaning "Rhineland" clerics and new ones were created.[24] When the council met on 16 October 1962, a new slate of commission members was presented and approved by the Council.[21] One important change was a significant increase in membership from Central and Northern Europe, beyond countries such as Spain or Italy. More than 100 bishops from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were Dutch or Belgian and tended to associate with the bishops from those countries. These groups were led by Cardinals Bernardus Johannes Alfrink of the Netherlands and Leo Suenens of Belgium.[25]

Eleven commissions and three secretariats were established, with their respective presidents:[26][27][28][29][30]

Interval between first and second periods[edit]

After adjournment on 8 December, work began on preparations for the sessions scheduled for 1963. These preparations, however, were halted upon the death of John XXIII on 3 June 1963, since a Catholic ecumenical council is automatically interrupted and suspended upon the death of the pope who convened it, until the next pope orders the council to be continued or dissolved.[31] Paul VI was elected on 21 June 1963 and immediately announced that the council would continue.[32]

In the months prior to the second session, Paul VI worked to correct some of the problems of organization and procedure that had been discovered during the first session. The changes included inviting additional lay Catholic and non-Catholic observers, reducing the number of proposed schemata to seventeen (which were made more general, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the Council) and later eliminating the requirement of secrecy surrounding general sessions.[32]

Second period: 1963 (29 September – 4 December)[edit]

Paul's opening address on 29 September 1963 stressed the pastoral nature of the Council, and set out four purposes for it:

  • to define more fully the nature of the Church and the role of the bishop;
  • to renew the Church;
  • to restore unity among all Christians, including seeking pardon for Catholic contributions to separation;
  • and to start a dialogue with the contemporary world.

During this second session, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the decree on social communication, Inter mirifica. Work went forward with the schemata on the Church, bishops and dioceses, and on ecumenism.

It was in this session that a revision of the rite of the consecration of virgins that was found in the Roman Pontifical was requested; the revised Rite was approved by Paul and published in 1970.[33][34]

On 8 November 1963, Josef Frings criticized the Holy Office, and drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Ottaviani, in one of the most dramatic exchanges of the Council.[35] (Cardinal Frings' theological adviser was the young Joseph Ratzinger, who would later as a Cardinal head the same department of the Holy See, and from 2005–13 reign as Benedict XVI). The second session ended on 4 December.

Paul VI presiding over the introductory ingress of the Council, flanked by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (left), Cardinal Camerlengo Benedetto Aloisi Masella and Monsignor Enrico Dante (future Cardinal), Papal Master of Ceremonies (right), and two Papal gentlemen.

Interval between second and third periods[edit]

In the time between the second and third sessions, the proposed schemata were further revised on the basis of comments from the council Fathers. A number of topics were reduced to statements of fundamental propositions that could gain approval during the third session, with postconciliar commissions handling implementation of these measures.

At the end of the second session, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Belgium had asked the other bishops: "Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?", referring to women.[36] In response, 15 women were appointed as auditors in September 1964.[36][37] Eventually 23 women were auditors at the Second Vatican Council, including 10 women religious.[37][38] The auditors had no official role in the deliberations, although they attended the meetings of subcommittees working on council documents, particularly texts that dealt with the laity.[37] They also met together on a weekly basis to read draft documents and to comment on them.[37]

Third period: 1964 (14 September – 21 November)[edit]

During the third session, which began on 14 September 1964, the council fathers worked through a large volume of proposals. There "were approved and promulgated by the Pope" schemata on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio); the official view on Protestant and Eastern Orthodox "separated brethren"; the Eastern Rite churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum); and the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen gentium).

Schemata on the life and ministry of priests and the missionary activity of the Church were rejected and sent back to commissions for complete rewriting. Work continued on the remaining schemata, in particular those on the Church in the modern world and on religious freedom. There was controversy over revisions of the decree on religious freedom and the failure to vote on it during the third session, but Paul promised that this schema would be the first to be reviewed in the next session.

Paul closed the third session on 21 November by announcing a change in the Eucharistic fast and formally reaffirming Mary as "Mother of the Church".[39] While some called for more dogmas about Mary, in a 2 February 1965 speech Paul VI referred to the "Christocentric and Church-centered direction which the council intends to give to our doctrine and devotion to our Lady".[40]: 12 

Interval between third and fourth periods[edit]

"Council ring" given to participating Cardinals

Going into the fourth session, Paul VI and most of the bishops wanted it to be the final one. Cardinal Ritter observed that, "We were stalled by the delaying tactics of a very small minority" in the Curia who were more industrious in communicating with the pope than was the more progressive majority.[40]: 3  Eleven schemata remained unfinished at the end of the third session,[40]: 238–50  and commissions worked to give them their final form. Schema 13, on the Church in the modern world, was revised by a commission that worked with the assistance of laypersons.

Fourth period: 1965 (14 September – 8 December)[edit]

Paul VI opened the last session of the council on 14 September 1965 and on the following day promulgated the motu proprio establishing the Synod of Bishops.[41] This more permanent structure was intended to preserve close cooperation of the bishops with the pope after the Council.

The first business of the fourth session was the consideration of the decree on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, one of the more controversial of the conciliar documents that passed on 21 September by a vote of 1,997 for to 224 against.[40]: 47–49  The principal work of the other part of the session was work on three documents, all of which were approved by the council Fathers. The lengthened and revised pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, was followed by decrees on missionary activity, Ad gentes, and on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum ordinis.[40]: 238–50 

The council also gave final approval to other documents that had been considered in earlier sessions. These included the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum) and the decrees on the pastoral office of bishops (Christus Dominus), on the life of persons in religious orders (expanded and modified from earlier sessions, finally titled Perfectae caritatis), on education for the priesthood (Optatam totius), on Christian education (Gravissimum educationis), and on the role of the laity (Apostolicam actuositatem).[40]: 238–50 

One of the more controversial documents[42] was Nostra aetate, which stated that the Jews of the time of Christ, taken indiscriminately, and all Jews today are no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God. ...The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews.[43]

Better Jewish-Catholic relations have been emphasized since the Council.[44]

A major event of the final days of the council was the act of Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of a joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led up to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches.[40]: 236–7 

"The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the Council" (Paul VI., address, 7 December). On 8 December, the council was formally closed, with the bishops professing their obedience to the Council's decrees. To help carry forward the work of the Council, Paul:

  • had earlier formed a Papal Commission for the Media of Social Communication to assist bishops with the pastoral use of these media;
  • declared a jubilee from 1 January to 26 May 1966 (later extended to 8 December 1966) to urge all Catholics to study and accept the decisions of the council and apply them in spiritual renewal;
  • changed in 1965 the title and procedures of the Holy Office, giving it the name of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as the titles and competences of other departments of the Roman curia;
  • made permanent the secretariates for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers.[45]

Documents of the Council[edit]

The abolition of Friday of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary is an example of changes in the Liturgical Calendar after the Council. The Virgin of Hope of Macarena, Spain.

Vatican II's teaching is contained in sixteen documents: four "constitutions" (documents of highest importance), nine decrees and three declarations.

Approval of Documents
Document Date of approval of final text Vote on final text Date of promulgation Vote preceding promulgation
Church 1964-Nov-19 2,134 - 10 1964-Nov-21 2,151 - 5
Revelation 1965-Oct-29 2,081 - 27 1965-Nov-18 2,344 - 6
Liturgy 1963-Nov-22 2,159 - 19 1963-Dec-04 2,147 - 4
Church and Modern World 1965-Dec-06 2,111 - 251 1965-Dec-07 2,309 - 75
Bishops 1965-Oct-01 2,167 - 14 1965-Oct-28 2,319 - 2
Priestly Ministry 1965-Dec-02 2,243 - 11 1965-Dec-07 2,390 - 4
Priestly Formation 1965-Oct-13 2,196 - 15 1965-Oct-28 2,318 - 3
Religious Life 1965-Oct-11 2,126 - 13 1965-Oct-28 2,321 - 4
Lay Apostolate 1965-Nov-10 2,201 - 2 1965-Nov-18 2,305 - 2
Eastern Churches 1964-Nov-20 2,054 - 64 1964-Nov-21 2,110 - 39
Ecumenism 1964-Nov-20 2,054 - 64 1964-Nov-21 2,137 - 11
Missions 1965-Dec-02 2,162 - 18 1965-Dec-07 2,394 - 5
Media 1963-Nov-24 1,598 - 503 1963-Dec-04 1,960 - 164
Non-Christian Religions 1965-Oct-15 1,763 - 242 1965-Oct-28 2,221 - 88
Religious Freedom 1965-Nov-19 1,954 - 249 1965-Dec-07 2,308 - 70
Christian Education 1965-Oct-14 1,912 - 183 1965-Oct-28 2,290 - 35

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy[edit]

The first document passed by the council was Sacrosanctum Concilium ("Most Sacred Council") on the church's liturgy. Benedict XVI explained that an essential idea of the council itself is the "Paschal Mystery (Christ's passion, death and resurrection) as the center of what it is to be Christian and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons, expressed in Eastertide and on Sunday which is always the day of the Resurrection."[46] Thus, the liturgy, especially the Eucharist which makes the Paschal Mystery present, is "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows."[47]

The matter that had the most immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics was the revision of the liturgy. The central idea was that there ought to be lay participation in the liturgy which means they "take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects" (SC 11). Since the mid-1960s, permission has been granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages.[b] It has been emphasized that the language used should be known to the gathered people.[49] The amount of Scripture read during Mass was greatly expanded,[17] through different annual cycles of readings. The revised version of the Latin text of the Mass remains the authoritative text on which translations are based. The invitation for more active, conscious participation of the laity through Mass in the vernacular did not stop with the decree on the liturgy. It was taken up by the later documents of the council that called for a more active participation of the laity in the life of the Church,[50] a turn away from clericalism toward a new age of the laity.[51]

Dogmatic Constitution on the Church[edit]

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium ("Light of the Nations") gave direction to several of the documents that followed it, including those on Ecumenism, on Non-Christian Religions, on Religious Freedom, and on The Church in the Modern World (see below). A most contentious conclusion that seems to follow from the Bishops' teaching in the decree is that while "in some sense other Christian communities are institutionally defective," these communities can "in some cases be more effective as vehicles of grace."[52] Belgian Bishop Emil de Smedt, commenting on institutional defects that had crept into the Catholic church, "contrasted the hierarchical model of the church that embodied the triad of 'clericalism, legalism, and triumphalism' with one that emphasized the 'people of God', filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and radically equal in grace," that was extolled in Lumen Gentium.[53] According to Paul VI, "the most characteristic and ultimate purpose of the teachings of the Council" is the universal call to holiness. John Paul II calls this "an intrinsic and essential aspect of [the council Fathers'] teaching on the Church",[54] where "all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity" (Lumen gentium, 40). Francis, in his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium (17) which laid out the programmatic for his pontificate, said that "on the basis of the teaching of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium" he would discuss the entire People of God which evangelizes, missionary outreach, the inclusion of the poor in society, and peace and dialogue within society. Francis has also followed the call of the council for a more collegial style of leadership, through synods of bishops and through his personal use of a worldwide advisory council of eight cardinals.[55][56]

The Second Vatican Council encouraged the scriptural reading of the Bible rather than relying solely on devotional writings, booklets and the lives of the Catholic saints, as had the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation[edit]

The Council's document Dei Verbum ("The Word of God") states the principle active in the other council documents that "The study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology".[57] It is said of Dei Verbum that "arguably it is the most seminal of all the conciliar documents," with the fruits of a return to the Bible as the foundation of Christian life and teaching, evident in the other council documents.[58] Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI, said of the emphasis on the Bible in the council that prior to Vatican II the theology manuals continued to confuse "propositions about revelation with the content of revelation. It represented not abiding truths of faith, but rather the peculiar characteristics of post-Reformation polemic."[59] In spite of the guarded approval of biblical scholarship under Pius XII, scholars suspected of Modernism were silenced right up to Vatican II.[60] The council brought a definitive end to the Counter-Reformation and, in a spirit of aggiornamento, reached back "behind St. Thomas himself and the Fathers, to the biblical theology which governs the first two chapters of the Constitution on the Church."[61] "The documents of the Second Vatican Council are shot through with the language of the Bible. ...The church's historical journey away from its earlier focus upon these sources was reversed at Vatican II." For instance, the Council's document on the liturgy called for a broader use of liturgical texts, which would now be in the vernacular, along with more enlightened preaching on the Bible explaining "the love affair between God and humankind".[62] The translation of liturgical texts into vernacular languages, the allowance of communion under both kinds for the laity, and the expansion of Scripture readings during the Mass was resonant with the sensibilities of other Christian denominations, thus making the Second Vatican Council "a milestone for Catholic, Protestants, [and] the Orthodox".[17]

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World[edit]

This document, named for its first words Gaudium et Spes ("Joy and Hope"), built on Lumen Gentium's understanding of the Church as the “pilgrim people of God” and as “communion”, aware of the long history of the Church's teaching and in touch with what it calls the “signs of the times”. It reflects the understanding that Baptism confers on all the task that Jesus entrusted to the Church, to be on mission to the world in ways that the present age can understand, in cooperation with the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Other documents of the Council[edit]

Opening declarationGaudet Mater Ecclesia ("Mother Church Rejoices") was the opening declaration of the Second Vatican Council, delivered by John XXIII on 11 October 1962 before the bishops and representatives of 86 governments or international groups. He criticizes the "prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster" for the church or world.[63] He speaks of the advantage of separation of Church and state but also the challenge to integrate faith with public life. The Church "meets today's needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning," by reformulating ancient doctrine for pastoral effectiveness. Also, the Church is "moved by mercy and goodness towards her separated children." John XXIII before his papacy had proven his gifts as a papal diplomat and as Apostolic Nuncio to France.[64]

On the Means of Social Communication – The decree Inter mirifica ("Among the wonderful", 1963) addresses issues concerning the press, cinema, television, and other media of communication.

Ecumenism – The decree Unitatis redintegratio ("Reintegration of Unity", 1964) opens with the statement: "The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council."

Of the Eastern Catholic Churches – The decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum ("Of the Eastern Churches", 1964) recognizes the right of Eastern Catholics in communion with the Holy See to keep their distinct liturgical practices and avoid Latinisation. It encourages them to "take steps to return to their ancestral traditions."

Mission Activity – The decree Ad gentes ("To the Nations", 1965) treats evangelization as the fundamental mission of the Catholic Church, "to bring good news to the poor." It includes sections on training missionaries and on forming communities.

The Apostolate of the Laity – The decree Apostolicam actuositatem ("Apostolic Activity", 1965) declares that the apostolate of the laity is "not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel", in every field of life, together or through various groups, with respectful cooperation with the Church's hierarchy.

The Pastoral Office of Bishops – The decree Christus Dominus ("Christ the Lord", 1965) places renewed emphasis on collegiality and on strong conferences of bishops, while respecting the papacy.

pre-Vatican II habit

On Religious Freedom – The declaration Dignitatis humanae ("Of the Dignity of the Human Person", 1965) is "on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious".

Non-Christian Religions – The declaration Nostra aetate ("In our time", 1965) reflects that people are being drawn closer together in our time. The Church "regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.'' And Jews today "should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God" for what happened to Jesus.

The Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life – The decree Perfectae Caritatis ("Of perfect charity", 1965) calls for "adaptation and renewal of the religious life [that] includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time."

On the Ministry and Life of Priests – The decree Presbyterorum ordinis ("The order of priests", 1965) describes priests as "father and teacher" but also "brothers among brothers with all those who have been reborn at the baptismal font." Priests must "promote the dignity" of the laity, "willingly listen" to them, acknowledge and diligently foster "exalted charisms of the laity", and "entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action." Also, the human and spiritual needs of priests are discussed in detail.

On Priestly Training – The decree Optatam totius ("Desired [renewal] of the whole", 1965).

On Christian Education – The declaration Gravissimum educationis ("Extremely important [time] of education", 1965).[65]

Closing Statement – On 12 January 1966, a month after the close of the Council, Paul VI wrote the letter Udienze Generale on how the council was to be interpreted.[66]

Objections to the Council[edit]

An illustrated 1911 Roman Missal reprint from its 1884 edition

The questioning of the nature of and even validity of the Second Vatican Council continues to be a contending point of rejection and conflict among various religious communities, some of which are not in communion with the Catholic Church.[67] In particular, two schools of thought may be discerned:

  • Various Traditionalist Catholics, who claim that the modernising reforms that resulted both directly or indirectly from the council consequently brought detrimental effects, heretical acts, and indifference to the customs, beliefs, and pious practices of the Church before 1962. In addition, they say there is a doctrinal contradiction between the council and earlier papal statements regarding faith, morals and doctrine declared prior to the council itself.[68] Furthermore, they claim that the council decentralised the previous notion of the Catholic Church's supremacy over other religions while demoralising its longstanding pious practices of religiosity. They assert that, since there were no dogmatic proclamations defined within the documents of the Council, such documents are not infallible and therefore not canonically binding for faithful Catholics, most notably when such concilliar documents give way, as they say, to the loose implementation of longstanding Catholic doctrines that were previously sanctioned and upheld by former Popes prior to 1962. In light of this, most Traditionalist Catholics will exclusively adhere to the 1917 Code of Canon Law.[c]
  • Sedevacantists go beyond this in asserting that, after breaking with Catholic tradition and espousing heresy, present and future popes cannot legitimately claim the papacy. Therefore it remains vacant, until another papal claimant formally abandons the Vatican II council and re-establishes former traditional norms (prior to 1962 or prior to the reign of John XXIII).

The most recent edition of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that Catholics may not disregard the teaching of an ecumenical council even if it does not propose its teaching as definitive. Accordingly, it also maintains the view that the present living pope alone judges the criterion of membership for being in communio with the Church.[69] The present canon law further articulates:

Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a Doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.[70][71]


Some changes resulting from Vatican II[edit]

The Council addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world.[72] Several changes resulting from the Council include the renewal of consecrated life with a revised charism, ecumenical efforts with other Christian denominations, interfaith dialogue with other religions, and the universal call to holiness, which according to Paul VI was "the most characteristic and ultimate purpose of the teachings of the Council".[73]

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the most important and essential message of the council was "the Paschal Mystery as the center of what it is to be Christian and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons".[46] Other changes that followed the council included the widespread use of vernacular languages in the Mass instead of Latin, the allowance of communion under both kinds for the laity, the subtle disuse of ornate clerical regalia, the revision of Eucharistic (liturgical) prayers, the abbreviation of the liturgical calendar, the ability to celebrate the Mass versus populum (with the officiant facing the congregation), as well as ad orientem (facing the "East" and the Crucifix), and modern aesthetic changes encompassing contemporary Catholic liturgical music and artwork.[17] With many of these changes resonating with the perspectives of other Christian denominations who sent observers to the Second Vatican Council, it was an ecumenical "milestone for Catholics, Protestants, [and] the Orthodox".[17] These changes, while praised by many faithful Catholics,[74] remain divisive among those identifying as traditionalist Catholics.[75][d]

In addition to general spiritual guidance, the Second Vatican Council produced very specific recommendations, such as in the document Gaudium et Spes: "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation."[76]

Dignitatis humanae, authored largely by United States theologian John Courtney Murray, challenged the council fathers to find "reasons for religious freedom" in which they believed,[77]: 8  and drew from scripture scholar John L. McKenzie the comment: "The Church can survive the disorder of development better than she can stand the living death of organized immobility."[77]: 106 

As a result of the reforms of Vatican II, on 15 August 1972 Paul issued the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam[78] which in effect suppressed the minor orders and replaced them with two ministries, those of lector and acolyte. A major difference was: "Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders."[78]

The "Spirit of Vatican II"[edit]

By "the spirit of Vatican II" is often meant promoting teachings and intentions attributed to the Second Vatican Council in ways not limited to literal readings of its documents, spoken of as the "letter" of the Council[79][80] (cf. Saint Paul's phrase, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life"[81]).

The spirit of Vatican II is invoked for a great variety of ideas and attitudes. Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong used it with regard merely to an openness to dialogue with others, saying: "We are guided by the spirit of Vatican II: only dialogue and negotiation can solve conflicts."[82]

In contrast, Michael Novak described it as a spirit that:

... sometimes soared far beyond the actual, hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. ...It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything "pre" was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic "in spirit". One could take Catholic to mean the 'culture' in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as "them".[83]

From another perspective, Church historian John W. O'Malley writes:

For the new churches it recommended adaptation to local cultures, including philosophical and theological adaptation. It also recommended that Catholic missionaries seek ways of cooperating with missionaries of other faiths and of fostering harmonious relations with them. It asserted that art from every race and country be given scope in the liturgy of the church. More generally, it made clear that the church was sympathetic to the way of life of different peoples and races and was ready to appropriate aspects of different cultural traditions. Though obvious-sounding, these provisions were portentous. Where would they lead?

— John O'Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (Belknap Press, 2010).

Fiftieth Anniversary[edit]

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II, in October 2011, Benedict XVI declared the period from October 2012 to the Solemnity of Christ the King at the end of November 2013 a "Year of Faith", as:

...a good opportunity to help people understand that the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of John Paul II, "have lost nothing of their value or brilliance". They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church's Tradition. ...I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.[84]

Vatican II and the pontificate of pope Francis[edit]

It has been suggested that the pontificate of Francis will be looked upon as the "decisive moment in the history of the church in which the full force of the Second Vatican Council's reformist vision was finally realized."[85]: 178  Francis returned to the Vatican II theme of ressourcement, breaking with the Catholic philosophical tradition that had originated with Thomas Aquinas seven centuries before,[86][87] and looked to original sources in the New Testament.[88]: 54  In contrast to John Paul II who emphasized continuity with the past in Vatican II's teachings,[89][90] Francis' words and actions were noted from the start for their discontinuities, with an emphasis on Jesus himself and on mercy: a "church that is poor and for the poor", "disposal of the baroque trappings" in liturgical celebrations, and revision of the institutional aspects of the church.[88]: 32–33  From his first gesture when elected Pope, calling himself simply Bishop of Rome,[91] Francis connected with the thrust of the council away from "legalism, triumphalism, and clericalism".[92] He made greater use of church synods,[93][94] and instituted a more collegial manner of governance by constituting a Council of Cardinal Advisers from throughout the world to assist him[95][96] which a church historian calls the "most important step[97] in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries."[95] His refocusing the Church on “a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love” is also seen as coming from the Council,[98][99] as is his lifting up the laity for mission and calling for the presence of women in theologates.[100] He has softened the "forbidding" image of the Church by applying Vatican II's views on respect for conscience to issues like atheism, homosexuality, and the sacraments.[101][102] This has led to a struggle between "anti-Vatican II diehards and clerics who prefer John XXIII’s (and Francis’s) generosity of spirit."[103] On the issue of liturgy, he has tried to advance the renewal initiated by Vatican II that would elicit more conscious, active participation by the people.[104][105][106] And while his predecessors had taken a dim view of liberation theology, his more positive view is seen as flowing from a discernment of "the signs of the times" called for by Gaudium et spes.[107]: 357  He appointed more cardinals from the southern hemisphere and constituted an advisory counsel of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on reform, which a church historian calls the "most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries."[108]

Vatican II participants who later became pope[edit]

Of those who took part in the Council's opening session, four have become popes: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding John XXIII took the name Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became John Paul II; and Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who became Benedict XVI.[109][110][111]

Saints of Vatican II[edit]

Several of the fathers and theologians-experts, as well as several Roman Popes and council observers, became canonized saints or are in the process of canonization. These include:



  1. ^ There has been speculation that the Vatican somehow assured the Russian Orthodox Church that communism and the Soviet State were topics that would not be raised at the council. However, J. O. Berlioz states that the real issue was the desire of the Russian Orthodox to be invited directly, instead of through the Ecumenical Patriarch.[18]
  2. ^ Historically speaking, "Latin Mass" could be applied also to the various forms of Pre-Tridentine Mass from about the year 370, when the Church in Rome changed from Greek to Latin.[48]
  3. ^ Representatives of this school of thought include Brunero Gherardini, who in 2009 petitioned the Pope for a review of Vatican II; Paolo Pasqualucci, who with other scholars subscribed to Gherardini's petition; Roberto de Mattei, who wrote a history of CVII ("Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta").
  4. ^ Various feasts and devotional celebrations related to popular piety were revised or abbreviated as a result of the council. Examples of this are the revision of the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the celebration of Friday of Sorrows in Lent.



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