Skip to main content

Vatican II


VATICAN II. Numerous commentators agree that the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was the single most important event in twentieth-century religious history, although seldom is it cited for its significance in U.S. history. Yet Vatican II was a watershed in American cultural life, comparable in significance to often-cited events like the Armory Show of 1913 or the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Like these events, Vatican II illuminated and ratified a series of influential cultural trends. Not only did it influence tens of millions of U.S. Catholics, but thanks to the broad knowledge of it among the American public, Vatican II also promoted sustained conversation among multiple belief systems—Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and a variety of other religions and spiritual movements. As such, it helped foment the historically unparalleled blending of religious traditions and practices characteristic of the late-twentieth-century United States, and consequently, it served as a critical event in cultural history, announcing the arrival of what some have called religion's postmodern age. Vatican II gave evidence of a new deference on the part of church authorities to the idea that both the secular and religious world provided multiple sources of truth and of the common good, and it represented a notable democratizing influence within the Catholic Church.

Vatican II was an extended meeting in Rome of over 2,600 Catholic bishops from around the world with 240 U.S bishops attending, and it had five especially defining goals: aiming to elaborate a positive relationship between Catholicism and the modern world; abandoning the format of harsh denunciations (anathemas) used at previous church councils; affirming the fundamental human right to religious liberty; affirming that fundamental truths were taught by religions other than Roman Catholicism; and reforming Catholic spirituality and church governance. By the mid-twentieth century, church leaders had long pronounced their opposition to modern Enlightenment principles that eroded belief in the supernatural, divine revelation, and hierarchical authority; however, Vatican II sought to reconcile church teachings with modern principles, praising the advances of science and technology, democratic government, and religious toleration. At the request of its instigator, Pope John XXIII, the Vatican Council adopted a conciliatory rhetoric in each of its official pronouncements, avoiding the customary confrontational language and critical statements directed toward other religious bodies or governments. Its civility, in turn, elicited praise for the Council from numerous non-Catholic sources. Marking a major transformation in official teaching, the Vatican II document On Religious Freedom (drafted by the U.S. Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray) stated that each individual possessed the right to choose his or her religion and practice it free from political persecution; previously, official church teaching was that "error possesses no rights," and that since other religions, unlike Catholicism, advocated religious errors, they did not command the protection of law. Further, pronouncements on ecumenism and non-Christian religions acknowledged that numerous world religions also taught fundamental truths, rescinding past denunciations, yet stopping short of rescinding the excommunication of key figures like Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

While Vatican II's other distinguishing marks involved external affairs, the reform of spirituality and church governance prompted internal renovation. Thanks to modern modes of communication that permitted rapid transmission of information, Vatican II was the most uniform and comprehensive reform initiative in church history. Where the reform program of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent took many decades to disseminate and implement throughout the Catholic world, Vatican II reforms spread swiftly. Consequently, the period after 1965 brought rapid transformation and turmoil, often inducing bitter division and disagreement among Catholics. The two most significant changes in spiritual life were, first, the reform of the Mass (celebration of Eucharist), especially the use of the vernacular language rather than Latin and the increased participation of lay people in its sacred rituals, and, second, the "universal call to holiness," which asserted that each individual possessed a fundamental responsibility for cultivating the spiritual life and bringing spiritual principles to bear in society, culture, and politics. Additionally, the reform of church governance provoked the establishment of deliberative bodies at the local and national levels, and lay Catholics were encouraged to assist in governance and leadership through democratically elected parish councils and numerous ministerial activities. Lay leadership grew, in part, due to the declining number of priests in the decades after 1960. Increased emphasis on individual responsibility and an increase in democratic governance frequently led to clashing viewpoints, encouraging the formation of opposing ideological camps among many lay Catholics, often referred to as the "liberal" and "conservative" wings within the church. Additionally, the emphasis on individual responsibility helped normalize public dissent from the teachings of the church hierarchy and led to the notably heightened value of individual conscience in the moral and religious imagination.


Appleby, R. Scott, and Mary Jo Weaver, eds. Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Flannery, Austin, ed. Vatican II: Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992. Source for official Vatican II pronouncements.

Komonchak, Joseph A., and Guiseppe Alberrigo, eds. History of Vatican II. 5 vols. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 1995–2002. A comprehensive survey of the deliberations in Rome.

Morris, Charles R. American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church. New York: Time Books, 1997.

Weaver, Mary Jo, ed. What's Left? Liberal American Catholics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in the United States since the 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

James P.McCartin

See alsoCatholicism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vatican II." Dictionary of American History. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Vatican II." Dictionary of American History. . (August 18, 2018).

"Vatican II." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.