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Second Vatican Council

Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican
Date 19621965
Accepted by Roman Catholic Church
Previous Council First Vatican Council
Next Council most recent Council
Convoked by Pope John XXIII
Presided by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI
Attendance up to 2540
Topics of discussion Church in the modern world, ecumenism
Documents 4 Constitutions:

9 decrees:

3 declarations:

Chronological list of Ecumenical councils

The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was an Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965.

For Catholics, the most visible results were changes in how Church sacraments were practiced, the use of vernacular languages for the Mass, and a new attitude towards their relationship with non-Catholics.

A small minority of Catholics, however, do not accept the Council and its actions. Some attribute to Vatican II a lesser binding authority than that of the other Ecumenical Councils, calling it non-dogmatic, and rejecting some of its teachings and decrees. (See Traditional Catholicism and sedevacantism.)



By the 1950s, liberal trends in Catholic theological and biblical studies had begun to move away from the neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism that the reaction to the Modernist heresy had enforced from after the First Vatican Council well into the 20th century.  This liberalism sprang from theologians such as Yves Congar and Karl Rahner who looked to integrate modern human experience with Christian truth, as well as others such as Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Henri de Lubac who looked to what they saw as a more accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers as a source of renewal.

At the same time the world's bishops faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technical change. Many of these bishops sought changes in church structure and practice to address those challenges. The First Vatican Council had been held nearly a century before, but had been cut short by the effects of the Franco-Prussian War. As a result, only deliberations on the role of the Papacy were completed, with examination of pastoral and dogmatic issues concerning the whole church left undone. Pope Pius XII had considered convening a Council in order to address these issues and to confront Communism, but was advised not to do so because the presence of Modernists threatened to undermine his efforts and revolutionize the Church.

Pope John XXIII, however, gave notice of his intention to convene the Council less than three months after his election in 1959. While in many messages over the next three years he expressed his intentions in formal detail, one of the best known images is of Pope John, when asked why the Council was needed, reportedly opening a window and saying: "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in." He invited other Christian Churches to send observers to the Council. Acceptances came from both Protestant and Orthodox Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church, in fear of the then Communist Soviet Government, accepted only when assured that the Council would be apolitical in nature.


Preparations for the council, which took more than two years, included work from 10 specialized commissions, along with secretariats for mass media and Christian Unity, and a Central Commission for overall coordination. These groups, composed mostly of members of the Roman Curia, produced 73 proposed constitutions and decrees (known as schemata) intended for consideration by the council. It was expected that these groups would be succeeded by similarly constituted commissions during the council itself that would carry out the main work of drafting and reviewing proposals before presentation to the council as a whole for review and expected approval; what happened, however, was that every single schema was thrown out in the first session of the Council, and new ones were created on the spot.

The general sessions of the council were held in the fall of four successive years (in four periods) 19621965. During the rest of the year special commissions met to review and collate the work of the bishops and to prepare for the next period. Sessions were held in Latin, in St. Peter's Basilica, with secrecy kept as to discussions held and opinions expressed. Speeches (called interventions) were limited to 10 minutes. Much of the work of the council, though, went on in a variety of other commission meetings (which could be held in other languages), as well as diverse informal meetings and social contacts outside of the council proper.

2,908 persons (referred to as Council Fathers) were entitled to seats at the council. These included all bishops, as well as many superiors of male religious orders. 2,540 took part in the opening session, making it the largest gathering in any council in church history. Attendance varied in later sessions from 2,100 to over 2,300. In addition, a varying number of periti (Latin for "experts") were available for theological consultation — a group that turned out to have a major influence as the council went forward. Seventeen Orthodox and Protestant denominations sent observers.

First Session — October 11December 8, 1962

Pope John opened the Council in a public session which included the Council Fathers as well as representatives of 86 governments and international bodies. Following a Mass, the Pope read an address to the assembled bishops entitled Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Latin for "Mother Church Rejoices"). In the speech, he rejected the thoughts of "prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster" in the world and in the future of the Church. Pope John stressed the pastoral, not doctrinal, nature of the Council: the Church did not need to repeat or reformulate existing doctrines and dogmas, but rather had to teach Christ's message in light of the modern world's ever-changing trends. He exhorted the Council Fathers "to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity" in the documents they would produce.

In their first working session, the bishops voted not to proceed as planned by the curial preparatory commissions, but to first consult among themselves, both in national and regional groups, as well as in more informal gatherings. This resulted in a reworking of the structure of the council commissions, as well as changing the priority of issues considered.

Issues considered during the sessions included liturgy, mass communications, the Eastern Rite churches, and the nature of revelation. Most notably, the schema on revelation was rejected by a majority of bishops, and Pope John intervened to require its rewriting.

After adjournment, work began on preparations for the sessions scheduled for 1963. These preparations, however, were halted upon the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963. Pope Paul VI was elected on June 21, 1963, and immediately announced that the Council would continue.

Second Session — September 29December 4, 1963

In the months prior to the first general session, Pope Paul worked to correct some of the problems of organization and procedure that had been discovered during the first period. This included inviting additional lay Catholic and non-Catholic observers, reducing the number of proposed schemata to 17 (which were made more general, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the council), and later eliminating the requirement of secrecy surrounding general sessions.

Pope Paul's opening address stressed the pastoral nature of the council, and set out four purposes for it:

  • to more fully define 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;
  • to start a dialog with the contemporary world.

During this period, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) and the decree on the media of social communication (Inter Mirifica). Work went forward with the schemata on the church, bishops and dioceses, and ecumenism. On November 8, 1963, Joseph Cardinal Frings insultingly criticized the Holy Office (once known as the Inquisition) which drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani . This exchange is often considered the most dramatic of the council.

Third Session — September 14November 21, 1964

In the period between the second and third sessions, the proposed schemata were further revised based on comments from the council fathers. A number of topics were reduced to statements of fundamental propositions that could gain approval during the third period, with postconciliar commissions handling implementation of these measures. Eight religious and seven lay women observers were invited to the sessions of the third period, along with additional male lay observers.

During this period, the council fathers worked through a large volume of proposals. schemata on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), the Eastern Rite churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum), and the constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) were approved and promulgated by the Pope.

A votum or statement concerning the sacrament of marriage for the guidance of the commission revising the Code of Canon Law regarding a wide variety of juridicial, ceremonial and pastoral issues. The bishops submitted this schema with a request for speedy approval, but the Pope did not act during the council. Pope Paul also instructed the bishops to defer the topic of artificial contraception (birth control) to a commission of clerical and lay experts that he had appointed.

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 religious freedom. There was controversy over revisions of the decree on religious freedom, and the failure to vote on it during the third period, but Pope Paul promised that this schema would be the first to be reviewed in the next session.

Pope Paul closed the third period by announcing a change in the eucharistic fast, and a formal declaration of Mary as "Mother of the Church," as had always been taught.

Fourth Session — September 14December 8, 1965

Eleven schemata remained unfinished at the end of the third period, 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 laymen.

Pope Paul opened the last period of council sessions with the establishment of a Synod of Bishops. 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 period was the consideration of the decree on religious freedom, which may be the most controversial of the conciliar documents. The vote was 1,997 for to 224 against (a margin that widened even farther by the time the bishop's final signing of the decree (Dignitatis Humanæ)). The principal work of the rest of the period 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 the ministry and life of priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis).

The council also gave final approval to other documents that had been considered in earlier sessions. This included decrees on the pastoral office of bishops (Christus Dominus), the life of persons in religious orders (expanded and modified from earlier sessions) (Perfectæ Caritatis), education for the priesthood (Optatam Totius), Christian education (Gravissimum Educationis) and the role of the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem).

One of the most controversial documents was Nostra Ætate, which affirmed, as did the documents of the 16th century Council of Trent, that "the Jews" of the time of Christ as individuals (and all Jews today) are no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians are (see Catechism of the Council of Trent, Article IV).

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, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, 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 at any time and by anyone.

More on this topic is available in the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation.

A major event of the final days of the council was the act of Pope 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, expressed as the Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965.

On December 8, 1965, the Second Vatican Council was formally closed, with the bishops professing their obedience to the council's decrees. To help carry forward the work of the council, Pope 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 January 1 to May 26, 1966 to urge all Catholics to study and accept the decisions of the council, and apply them in spiritual renewal;
  • changed the name and procedures of the Holy Office (once the Inquisition) — now to be known as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
  • established postconciliar commissions for bishops and the government of dioceses, religious orders, missions, Christian education, and the role of lay persons;
  • made permanent the secretariates for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers.


The Church

Perhaps the most famous and most influential product of the council is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

In its first chapter, titled "The Mystery of the Church", is the famous statement that "the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour… this Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him" (Lumen Gentium, 8). The document immediately adds: "Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines."

In the second chapter, titled "On the People of God", the Council teaches that God wills to save people not just as individuals but as a people. For this reason God chose the Israelite race to be his own people and established a covenant with it, as a preparation and figure of the covenant ratified in Christ that constitutes the new People of God, which would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit and which is called the Church of Christ (Lumen Gentium, 9). All human beings are called to belong to the Church. Not all are fully incorporated into the Church, but "(t)he Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christ, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter" (Lumen Gentium, 15) and even with "those who have not yet received the Gospel", among whom Jews and Moslems are explicitly mentioned (Lumen Gentium, 16).

The title of the third chapter, "The Church is Hierarchical", indicates clearly its contents, outlining the essential role of the bishops and of the Roman Pontiff.

There follow chapters on the laity, the call to holiness, religious, the pilgrim Church, and Our Lady. The chapter on the call to holiness is significant, because it indicates that sanctity should not be the exclusive province of priests and religious, but rather that all Christians are called to holiness. Of course this was always the Church's teaching, but many felt that the idea had been obscured in the public mind.

The chapter on Mary was the subject of a particular debate. Original plans had called for a separate document about the role of Mary, in order to keep the document on the Church "ecumenical", in the sense of "non-offensive" to Protestant Christians who object to the veneration of Mary. The Council Fathers, however, insisted, with support of the pope, that Mary's place was in the Church, and therefore, her chapter should appear in the Constitution dedicated to the Church.


One of the first issues considered by the council, and the matter that has had the most immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics, has been revision of the liturgy. The central idea was (from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy):

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4–5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14)

Vatican II went much further in encouraging "active participation" than previous Popes had allowed or recommended. The council fathers established guidelines to govern the revision of the liturgy, which included allowing the very limited use of local languages instead of Latin. As bishops determined, local or national customs could be carefully incorporated into the liturgy.

Implementation of the Council's directives was carried out, under the authority of Pope Paul VI, by papal commissions, and, in the areas entrusted to them, by national and regional conferences of bishops.

Scripture and Divine Revelation

The council sought to preserve the central role of Scripture in the theological and devotional life of the Church, while overturning the work of earlier popes in crafting a modern approach to scriptural analysis and interpretation. A new approach to interpretation was approved by the bishops. The Church was to continue to provide versions of the Bible in the "mother tongues" of the faithful, and both clergy and laity were to continue to make Bible study a central part of their lives. This affirmed the importance of Sacred Scripture as attested by Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII and the writings of the Saints, Doctors, and Popes throughout Church history.

The Bishops

The role of the bishops of the Church was brought into renewed prominence, especially the whole group of them, seen as a college that has succeeded the Apostles in teaching and governing the Church. This college does not exist without its head, the successor of St Peter. Accordingly, despite the claims made by some at the time, the Council did not give the Church two earthly heads, the College of Bishops and the Pope. As an explanatory note incorporated into the Lumen Gentium stated, "It is not a distinction between the Roman Pontfif and the bishops taken together, but between the Roman Pontiff by himself and the Roman Pontiff along with the bishops."

In many countries, bishops had held regular conferences to discuss common matters. The Council gave official recognition to these conferences, though their decisions remained nonbinding on the individual members unless adopted by a two-thirds majority and ratified by the Holy See.

Developments Blamed on the Council

Some of the more conservative Catholics view the Second Vatican Council as an event that moved the Church away from its historical view of Scripture, devotion to Scholasticism, and firm ideas on the "Four Last Things" (Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell). Rather than the beginning of a "New Springtime," they see it as the cause of a tremendous decline in vocations and widespread disbelief in many Catholic dogmas (e.g., denial of the True Presence, reticence in accepting the Resurrection as a historic event). They say it changed the focus of the Church from attaining Heaven to improving man's temporal situation.

Post-Conciliar Catholic Life in the United States of America

Kenneth C. Jones's "Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II" cites many statistics comparing measurable aspects of Catholic life in the United States before and after the Second Vatican Council. One of the most important is the following:

Catholics aged 18–44 who don't believe in transubstantiation: 70%

Research conducted by Fordham University's Dr. James Lothian compared statistics similar to the foregoing with allegedly equivalent data relevant to Protestantism, finding that no equivalent decline has occurred in Protestant faith communities over the same time period. Traditional Catholics often cite these statistics to buttress their assertion that the alleged ambiguity of Vatican II documents, and the interpretations assigned to those documents, have had a negative impact on the Church.

On the other hand, the beginning of these phenomena, such as the drop in Mass attendance, was in evidence in the United States even before the Second Vatican Council. Their acceleration others attribute, not to the supposedly equivocal Council, but to the clear teaching of Pope Paul VI's 25 July 1968 encyclical Humanæ Vitæ on artificial birth control. In The American Catholic: A Social Portrait, Andrew Greeley wrote: "The apostasy rate among American Catholics was 7 percent in 1953; it had not changed by 1967, the year before the encyclical. However, by the early 1970s the apostasy rate had doubled to 14 percent. … Dissatisfaction with the church's sexual teaching undoubtedly was widespread before the encyclical, but when all hope was turned off for reconsideration of the teaching, the encyclical became the catalyst for the dramatic religious change that has occurred in the years since" (p 143).


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