Vatican II

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The Dome of St Peter's Basilica

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

Events Which Led to the Council

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From 1962 until 1965, cardinals and bishops from all over the world gathered for the Second Vatican Council, often referred to simply as “Vatican II”. It was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. (Ecumenical, in this context, does not mean interdenominational, but that all of the diverse regions of the Catholic church were represented.) The idea for the twentieth century’s only ecumenical council originated with Pope John XXIII who, soon after his election in 1958, announced to a meeting of cardinals that the Holy Spirit had inspired him to convene a council.

Among his stated objectives in calling the council were: to foster spiritual renewal; to renew commitment to world evangelism and develop strategy; to lay the groundwork for an eventual reunion of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations; to make church doctrine more accessible and comprehensible; to simplify the constitution; to clarify the Church’s stand on moral issues in the postmodern world; and to emphasize and exemplify the overall unity of the Church.

The last time such a council had gathered was at the First Vatican Council in 1869-70, almost a hundred years earlier. Vatican II was destined to be a radical departure from the conservative spirit which had dominated that council, and there was a general mood that the time was ripe for a major review of the church’s institutions. While the immediate impetus was Pope John XXIII, it is easy to see how external changes in society also played a part in bringing about the feeling that there was a need for change. Since the time of Vatican I, the Church’s political power had dwindled. The age of colonization was over, and independence and cultural movements were gaining strength, prompting a new evaluation of the colonial approach of trying to conform the world to European standards. Two world wars had changed the face of Europe and the course of history. The age of mass communication had dawned. Women and minorities were daily making strides in power and status. Traditional moral standards were being challenged as never before. Nuclear weapons raised the possibility of human extinction. Technology was progressing at an unprecedented rate. Many people felt that the Church, which had changed little since the Middle Ages, was not dealing adequately with these tremendous changes. It was time for a major update of the structure, theology, and liturgy of the church which would enable it to remain relevant in a changing world.

In some ways, the policies of the previous pontiff, Pope Pius XII, helped set the stage. In The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 (HarperCollins, 1985), Justo L. González writes:

His encyclical of 1943, Divino afflante Spiritu, encouraged the use of modern methods of biblical study... The reform of the liturgy, which was one of the earliest actions of the Second Vatican Council, had been encouraged by him, albeit with great caution. But, above all, he led the way to the internationalization of the church that eventually made possible the Second Vatican Council... Thus, while he himself was a conservative pope after the fashion of the councils of Trent and Vatican I, he set in motion the machinery that would eventually lead to the Second Vatican Council and to the reformation it espoused. This “internationalization,” for Pius XII, had involved the strengthening of indigenous churches under the leadership of native bishops, encouraging the emancipation of the colonies, the formation of the Conference of Latin American Bishops, and the bringing of non-Italians into the curia and the college of cardinals.

Preparations for the Council

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The preparations for the council were extensive. They began with the institution by the pope of the Antepreparatory Commission in May 1959. Its purpose was to consult clergy and faculty members around the world for suggestions regarding the subject matter of the council discussions. The commission also made recommendations on the composition of the various bodies which would prepare the materials for consideration. This led to the establishment in June 1960 of the preparatory commissions, each of which was responsible for a particular area, such as theological issues, church government, liturgy, schools and universities, etc. There was a Central Commission responsible for examining the proposals of the other commissions before their final submission to the pope for his approval. There were also two “secretariats,” one concerned with the media, the other with the unity of Christians.

The pope officially convoked the council on Christmas Day, 1961, and soon afterwards the opening date was set at October 11, 1962. The venue was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the pope set the rules which would govern the council. An officiating body of ten cardinals was established, one of whom presided over the council each day. The pope also set up ten commissions which corresponded to those which had been set up for the preparatory stage. Each commission consisted of twenty-four members, two-thirds of them elected by the clergy and the rest chosen by the pope. As the official language of the church and the most commonly understood by the multinational attendees, Latin was the language of the council. A two-thirds majority was required for approval of proposals.

The First Period

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St Peter's Square

The first of the council’s four periods ran from October 11 to December 8, 1962. It was formally opened by Pope John in a public ceremony in which he stressed the need for unity and the setting aside of differences. Of the 2,908 people who were invited to attend, 2,540 were present for this first period, most of whom were cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church. The numbers were slightly lower for the second, third and fourth periods, fluctuating between 2,100 and 2,300. Observers from outside the Catholic Church, including representatives from several major denominations, were invited to attend the closed sessions. Their numbers increased each year until by the time of the fourth and final period, there were ninety-three observers representing twenty-eight Orthodox and Protestant denominations.

The first of the “general congregations” was held two days after the opening ceremony on October 13, 1962. There was an unexpected delay when the Bishop of Lille proposed that the bishops be allowed time to make their own nominations for the various commissions, instead of just approving the members which had taken part in the preparatory committees. His proposal was accepted and, as a result, the commissions came to be more representative of the diversity of the church than if they had merely accepted the current members. In addition, the pope gave the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity equal status with the ten commissions, reflecting a personal conviction of his which had been evident throughout the planning stages.

Among the schemata discussed in the first period were constitutions on the liturgy, on the sources of revelation, and on the communications media. A decree on the unity of the church was also discussed, though in this instance it only concerned itself with the churches in the Far East. The schema on revelation was controversial and to avoid prolonged debate, the pope intervened and appointed a special commission to rewrite it. In the last six general congregations of the period, discussions also began on a schema of the dogmatic constitution of the church, an item which was considered by many to be the most important task of the council. Pope John became ill toward the end of November, but he was able to attend the last general congregation and to officially close the first period the next day (December 8).

The Second Period

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The opening of the Second Session of Vatican II

In the intervening nine months between the first and second meetings of the council, the commissions reviewed the schemata which had come out of the first period, focusing on practicality and removing particular details in favor of general principles. They then sent the revised schemata to all of the participants, who were able to review the documents and return them with their own suggestions. The commissions again revised the schemata in light of these suggestions in time for the second period.

On June 3, 1963, after setting in motion one of the most progressive episodes in the history of the Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII died, causing a suspension of the council. However, John’s successor, who took the name, Paul VI, promptly announced his intention to continue, and work was resumed on July 3. Before the second period began, Paul refined the operating procedures to expedite the business at hand. He increased lay participation by adding numerous lay leaders from different countries to the list of invitees. He also increased the number of non-Catholic observers and removed the veil of secrecy which had prevailed at the first period. Instead of a two-thirds majority, a simple majority would now suffice for approval of proposals. As John XXIII before him had done, Paul VI requested Catholics throughout the world to pray and perform other acts of devotion on behalf of the council.

The second period opened on September 29, 1963, with a public opening ceremony in which the new pope reiterated the goals of the council. He specifically emphasized the need to reexamine the role of the church and its hierarchy, the need for renewal, the need for unity among Christians, and the need for dialogue with leaders in contemporary society. In the middle of the period, to further expedite the proceedings and create a broader representation, he increased the number of people on each commission from twenty-four to thirty.

As the meetings progressed, the dogmatic constitution of the church was discussed, as well as church government and ecumenism. The debates on ecumenism, in particular, grew quite heated at times. A new constitution on the liturgy was easily passed. The pope closed this second period of the council on December 4, 1963, expressing a desire for the council to complete its business at the next period.

The Third Period

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St Peter's Square

After the closing of the second period, the same process of review was adopted as had been used in the previous year. The commissioners examined the schemata, reducing them to general principles which could quickly and easily be agreed upon at the next gathering. The participants further reviewed them and made suggestions, then the commissioners made final revisions in time for the reopening of the council. It was agreed that the finer details of explanation and implementation could be worked out by postconciliar commissions.

Pope Paul opened the third period on September 14, 1964 with a public mass. Apart from the new material, there were a number of unfinished items from the second period to be dealt with. There were discussions on the role of bishops; religious freedom; a declaration concerning Jews and non-Christians; divine revelation; the apostolate of the laity; the Church in the postmodern world’; the Church in the Far East; education for the priesthood; Catholic schools; and the sacrament of marriage. In a vote of major importance, the constitution of the church was approved. The decrees on ecumenism and Far Eastern churches were also approved, but two others, one on the life and ministry of priests, and another on missions, were rejected and sent back to their respective commissions for rewriting. In a move which diminished the potential positive effect of the Decree on Ecumenism, the pope proclaimed Mary “Mother of the Church,” a title which the council had declined to give her, although they had affirmed the sentiment.

The third period closed on November 21, 1964. The pope concluded it, as he had begun it, with a mass. The hope that the unfinished business of the second period would all be taken care of had proven too optimistic, and it was clear that a fourth period would be necessary. In the interim, the pending schemata were subject to the same painstaking review and revision process as in the previous two years.

The Fourth Period

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The fourth and final period began on September 14, 1965. It was opened by Paul VI with a mass and the announcement that he was forming a synod of bishops as a means of continued cooperation between himself and the church at large. It was a productive period. In what many consider the climax of the council, an overwhelming majority voted to accept the schema on religious freedom, a development which exemplified the progressive spirit of the council. The council approved schemata for decrees concerning the pastoral office of bishops; the renovation of the life of “religious” (i.e. members of religious orders); education of the priesthood; the apostolate of the laity; missionary activities; and the life and ministry of priests. They also approved declarations on Christian education and non-Christian religions; and constitutions on divine revelation and the church in the postmodern world.

The last public meeting was held outdoors in front of the basilica on December 8, 1965. There were in attendance representatives of eighty-one governments and nine international organizations. The pope proclaimed a jubilee which would take place from New Year’s Day to Pentecost (May 29), 1966, for the purpose of giving thanks for the council and acquainting the faithful with its decisions. He established postconciliar commissions to implement the recommendations of the council regarding bishops and the government of dioceses, religious, missions, Christian education, and the apostolate of the laity. He also established a new central commission to oversee the existing five commissions and to interpret the decisions of the council. There would be permanent secretariats to deal with issues concerning Christian unity, non-Christian religions, and non-believers.

Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations

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St Peter's Basilica: Interior View

Over the course of its four periods, the council produced four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations, as follows:


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Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: This document related chiefly to the nature and role of the church and its hierarchy. It included such things as the authority of bishops, the apostolate of the laity, the relationship of “separated” Christians and non-believers to the Catholic church, social justice, missions, the relationship between church and state, and Mary as the mother of the church and a channel of grace. In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1984, p1136), C.T. McIntire writes:

The primacy of the Roman pontiff was again affirmed, but, significantly, the centrality of the bishops was also affirmed. This was the principle of collegiality – that the bishops as a whole were the continuation of the body of the apostles of which Peter was head. By placing episcopal collegiality in union with papal primacy and by shared infallibility the council resolved the ancient tension of pope versus councils.

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. This constitution focused on the nature of revelation. It looked at such issues as tradition in relation to Scripture, the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible, and the methods of teaching and promoting Scripture.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This constitution examined the forms, purpose and effectiveness of the liturgy. It was revolutionary in that it allowed for the use of the vernacular language in the mass, as well as the incorporation of local or national customs and the taking of both communion elements (wine and bread) by the laity. It affirmed the teaching and unifying value of communion.

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today. This constitution addressed a number of issues relevant to contemporary society, such as the role of women, race relations, poverty, hunger, communism, the relationship of church and society, divorce, abortion, nuclear weapons, and population.


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Pastoral Office of Bishops. As the name implies, this decree clarifies the roles and obligations of bishops, especially in the light of the new Dogmatic Constitution of the Church.

Ecumenism. This is one of the areas where the progressive mood of the council was most evident. Although the decree exhorts Catholics to be faithful to the truth as they have received it, it also encourages humility, charity and cooperation with regard to “separated brethren”.

Oriental Catholic Churches. This decree is similar in some ways to the Decree on Ecumenism, but it concerns itself specifically with the Church in the Far East. It gives Asian patriarchs similar standing with those of the West; accepts the need of Asian churches to adapt themselves to their own cultures rather than accept Latinization; accepts the validity of rites performed in non-Catholic Christian churches, and allows Catholics to participate in them when no Catholic priest is available.

Ministry and Life of Priests. This decree is for the priesthood what the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops is for that particular group. It clarifies the roles, responsibilities and obligations of priests in the contemporary world.

Education for the Priesthood. Priestly education was seen as important by the council, because the revitalization of the church was in large part dependent on its priests. This decree dealt with the need to update seminary programs to equip priests for ministry in the postmodern world, and the need for a practical training period after seminary.

St Peter's Basilica: Ciborium

Adapted Renovation of the Life of Religious. In regard to membership in the various orders, the council affirmed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was decided that constitutions of the orders should be updated to ensure both their adherence to their original spirit and their relevance in the postmodern world. Languishing communities should be forbidden from receiving any more novices. Communities with similar objectives should form associations.

Missionary Activity of the Church. This decree urged cooperation between missionary institutes and local ecclesiastical jurisdictions, adaptability to different cultures, dialogue with non-Christians, and the setting up of a central mission board.

Apostolate of the Laity. The theological basis and objectives of lay ministry were analyzed, and training for lay ministry was emphasized. In a significant move, the council affirmed what the Protestant reformers had proclaimed centuries before concerning the apostolate of the laity, or the priesthood of all believers. Previously, the Church was considered to be made up of its hierarchy – clergy, religious, etc. – but not the laity. This decree affirms that all Christians continue in the calling of the original apostles in whatever walk of life they find themselves. Therefore, the definition of the Church was expanded to include the laity.

Media of Social Communication. This decree affirms the legitimacy of the use of the mass media in evangelization and the promotion of church objectives. It also recommends that a special office for media concerns be set up in Rome, with national offices in each country. Additional recommendations were that an international Catholic news agency be founded, and that communications experts from various countries, including lay people, be recruited.


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Religious Freedom. This declaration comes to terms with the fact that the Catholic Church is no longer the political power that it was from the time of Constantine until the nineteenth century. It affirms that governments have no right to interfere with the personal religious convictions and practices of individuals or groups, except where it becomes a matter of public order. It urges governments to pass laws guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.

The Church’s Attitude toward Non-Christian Religions. This declaration reflects a new openness toward other religions. In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 14 (McGraw-Hill, 1967, p563), R.F. Trisco writes:

The declaration affirms that all peoples have one community, origin, and goal... Partial answers are given by Hinduism and Buddhism, in which the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy. The Church esteems the Moslems also... The Church deplores hatred and persecution of the Jews and all displays of anti-Semitism and reproves any discrimination or harassment based on race, color, social status, or religion.

Christian Education. This declaration affirms the right of all people to obtain an education and the obligation of national governments to ensure that basic education is provided, as well as the right to freedom of choice in education. The church has a right to use its own methods and principles at all levels of education, and can and should make recommendations and work in cooperation with other educational bodies. The church is responsible for upholding religious and moral principles in its own schools and encouraging them in others.

Third World Churches

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St Peter's Basilica: Cupola

The churches of the Third World benefited greatly from Vatican II. For the first time, they were given equal recognition and status with those of Europe and the New World. The colonization of the preceding centuries had given the Church an unprecedented opportunity for growth into Third World areas, but the council recognized that those churches had come of age and deserved equal status. Such status was necessary if the Church was to continue to thrive in these newly-independent nations which were reaffirming their own heritage after decades of European domination.

Mass Media

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The acceptance of modern media as tools for education, evangelism, promoting church unity, dissipation of information, and the furtherance of Catholic goals in society has been of great effect. John Paul II is a good example of a pope who, through extensive media exposure, became a familiar and influential person internationally. He was very sensitive to the potential of the mass media for extending his message to the world, and he did not hesitate to use it for the furtherance of Catholic objectives. The ability to respond to the media in a positive way may, in the end, be the greatest asset to a church which is seen by many as out of touch.

The Mass in the Vernacular

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When all is said and done, the first, most important, and often the only point of contact for the average person with the church is the mass. There can be no doubt that the decision of the council to allow the mass to be celebrated in the vernacular was of tremendous importance. It saved the mass from being merely a quaint rite, a relic of the past, and made it relevant to people’s lives in the present. A new breviary (which contains the annual schedule of hymns, prayers, Scripture readings, etc.) has also been introduced. The mass is still centered around the eucharist, however.

Celibacy and the Priesthood

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A doctrine which was affirmed at Vatican II, but which is increasingly coming under fire, is the need for celibacy in the priesthood. There has been a marked decline in those wishing to enter the priesthood in recent years and the celibacy requirement is cited more often than any other as a reason for this. Nevertheless, celibacy for clergy and religious is still seen as non-negotiable.

The "Separated Brethren"

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A giant stride forward came in the acceptance of the “separated brethren” as brothers and sisters in Christ. The previous position was that Catholic Church was the only true church. To not be a Catholic was to not be a Christian. The decision to accept non-Catholic believers as Christians overcame a major obstacle in the way of one of the stated purposes of John XXIII at the outset of the council, which was to work towards a reunification of the various branches of Christianity. It is unfortunate that Paul VI added a stumbling block by declaring that Mary is the “Mother of the Church,” a declaration which would not be well-received by Protestants who, as a rule, do not accept doctrines which are unsupported by the Bible. The declaration was out of keeping with the ecumenical spirit which prevailed at the council, and it did not have the support of the bishops.

Birth Control

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St Peter's Basilica

An issue which has a direct bearing on the lives of the laity is that of birth control. This is an area where the Church at large proved to be more progressive than the pope. A History of the Christian Church (4th ed., Charles Scribner, 1985, p701) tells us:

Pope Paul reaffirmed the church’s traditional stand on birth control in the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), in which all forms of artificial birth control were absolutely proscribed, despite the fact that the majority opinion of a special commission which had been called to give advice had advocated change. Many Catholic theologians and laymen took strong exception to the encyclical, finding that it was not in keeping with the expectations created by the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [from Vatican II].

A Step in the Right Direction

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Vatican II encompassed an extremely broad agenda. Although many of the changes were disturbing to conservatives at the time, there are few today who would say that the council was a negative influence on the direction of the church. It is true that critics can find much to complain about: declining church attendance, the lack of new recruits for the priesthood, the decreasing influence of the pope and bishops over the laity, the increase in marriages to non-Catholics, the decline of moral standards, etc., but it is unlikely that these things are because of the changes made at Vatican II. It could be argued the other way, that they are because the council did not go far enough. Vatican II seemed huge at the time, but in retrospect most of the changes brought about by the council were modest or symbolic, with key areas of concern, such as priesthood celibacy and the prohibition of birth control, left unchanged. The recognition of “separated brethren,” while a big step ideologically, has very little practical significance. The one truly significant change to come out of Vatican II is the use of the vernacular in the mass.


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Cross, F.L., E.A. Livingstone, eds. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press: 1983.

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 2. New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Gremillion, Joseph, ed. The Church and Culture Since Vatican II. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Hastings, Adrian, ed. Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Jedin, Hubert. "The Second Vatican Council." History of the Modern Church, Vol. X. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

McIntire, C.T. "Vatican Council II." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.

Murray, John Courtney, ed. Religious Liberty: An End and a Beginning. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Shaw, David. "John XXIII, Vatican II Cast Shadow on John Paul II." Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1995.

Trisco, R.F. "Vatican Council II." New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 14. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Walker, W., R.A. Norris, D.W. Lotz, R.T. Handy. A History of the Christian Church. 4th ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.