Vatican II

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Since the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had been challenged by modernity, leading to an antimodernist stage embodied in the First Vatican Council and its solemn definition of papal infallibility (1870). At the beginning of the twentieth century, biblical and patristic studies had begun to bring new modes of thinking into the Roman Catholic Church. By the 1950s, while progressively allowing scholars to move away from neoscholasticism and biblical literalism, the "biblical school" gave birth to a generation of eminent theologians such as Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, and Henri de Lubac, whose works revealed a more liberal understanding of Christian doctrine.

At the same time, the world's bishops faced tremendous challenges caused by political, social, economic, and technological change. Confronted with a world increasingly deaf to the church's teaching, many of these bishops sought changes in church structure and practice to address those challenges. But they lived in such isolation from one another that each bishop thought his position was largely unique and thus surrendered to the general mind of the church, which was felt overwhelmingly opposed to any change.

It is precisely in this context that, on 25 January 1959, within three months of his election to the Chair of Peter, Pope John XXIII announced his intention of summoning the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus in May 1959 Pope John launched preparations for the council, asking the world's Roman Catholic bishops, theological faculties, and universities to make recommendations for the agenda. Controlled by curial officials, thirteen preparatory commissions were appointed to write draft proposals on a wide range of topics.


On 11 October 1962 the first official gathering of the council was inaugurated by these few words: "Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned." Words of joy, words of welcome, they indicated a definitive break with the past hostile attitude of the church toward the world.

Indeed, the purpose of the council was to enable the church "to bring herself up to date" (aggiornamento) and to bring nearer the time of the reunion of all Christian faiths. Thus, unlike the First Vatican Council, the Second Vatican Council was not summoned with the aim of defining new doctrines or condemning new heresies but with the intent of finding a better way of expressing the teaching of the church in an increasingly secularized world. Confronted with the problem of a world more and more estranged from religion, the aim of the council was not to enlist Catholics in a new crusade against the present world but to find a way to fill the gap between the substance of church doctrine and its reformulation for the modern world.

The council formally opened in a public session that included the council fathers as well as representatives of eighty-six governments and international bodies. The participants with full voting rights were all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, of both the Western and Eastern rites, superiors-general of exempt religious orders, and prelates with their own special spheres of jurisdiction.

Vatican II was an ecumenical council (i.e., "of the inhabited world"). At the opening session it gathered 2,908 council fathers from every national and cultural background. Observers from other denominations also were invited and, with the exception of the Greek Orthodox, all came to the council. Indeed, the council's most spectacular innovation was the invitation extended to Protestant and Orthodox Eastern churches to send observers. Only communist nations were sparsely represented, as a result of government pressures.

Nevertheless, in spite of being an impressive and exceptional gathering of bishops, the council at first did not attract the press coverage it deserved. Most people saw in the event a mere prayer meeting. Even the famous theologian Yves Congar was suspicious of the gathering, as his published diary shows. Indeed, the first preparatory drafts were mostly formulated by the old guard ofPius XII, John XXIII's predecessor, and expressed a very conservative outlook and concerns. It was apparent that most of the curial officials were by no means pleased that the pope had summoned a general council. Unable to prevent the gathering, they set themselves to manage it, doing their best to control the issues debated and imposing upon the council the guidelines they had promulgated.

But curial officials were unable to dam up the very strong feeling that reforms were needed within the church. Congregating at Rome, most of the bishops discovered to their amazement that the hope for change was widespread within the assembly. Thus, aiming for free debate and protesting against the railroaded agenda, Achille Cardinal Liénart of Lille and Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne worked to ensure that unlike the First Vatican Council, the Second would not be stage-managed by curial officials but, on the contrary, would be a free assembly made of independent bishops.

Through free debate, differences in theological orientation among the council fathers and their fellow theologians were brought to light, revealing divisions within the church between "progressives" and "conservatives." Although the definitions of these two tendencies could shift depending on the issue, the primary difference that emerged regarded turning to scripture. Integralists wanted to state that tradition is the one source of doctrine (thus restricting any innovation), while progressives believed that the authority of the scripture should also be recognized (thus facilitating or permitting innovation).


The council assembly was faced with a vast compendium of some seventy documents on various matters of doctrine and discipline, and it became obvious that a new modus operandi was required if every document was to be fully discussed. Formally opened on 18 October 1962, the council comprised four general sessions, ending in 8 December 1965.

The first session had been almost entirely concerned with affirming the independence of the bishops against the curia officials. Debates were mostly endless. Still inexperienced, the council fathers only succeeded in accepting the principle of the use of the vernacular in the Mass. All the other discussions were to be resumed in the following sessions.

With the second session (autumn 1963), the council attempted to get down to real work. John XXIII died during the intersession. In June 1963 he was succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who presided over the last three sessions and endorsed the purposes of the council, adding to them that of dialogue with the modern world. But again, it was evident that the council had not yet solved its problem of procedure. The session mostly promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: the fundamental schema on the nature of the church that gave renewed importance to the role of the bishops and recognized the collegial nature of the episcopacy.

With the third session (autumn 1964), three new drafts were passed: on the Constitution of the church (the central achievement of the council), on Oriental rites, and on ecumenism. But most of the drafts submitted did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority and went back to their commissions for redrafting. Above all, difficulties arose in passing two declarations. First, the declaration on religious liberty, strongly backed by the American bishops, was considered controversial by most of the council fathers. And second, the declaration on Jews (implying an attitude of sincere dialogue) was strongly opposed by a small but vocal minority composed of old-fashioned conservatives and Arab bishops. Both texts were sent back to their respective commissions for redrafting.

The first business of the fourth session (autumn 1965) was therefore the consideration of these two documents. After a sharp debate, the council finally approved them, presenting a church opened to the modern world—a modern world that is by definition culturally and religiously diverse. Primarily, through the schemata on religious liberty, the council unequivocally affirmed the right and duty of all people to proclaim and practice the religion their conscience leads them sincerely to embrace. Additionally, a major event of the final days of the council was the meeting of Pope Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem and the joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led to the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern churches.

By the time of its adjournment the council had issued four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations on the nature of the church and the nature of the world: sixteen documents, all of them officially approved by the pope. The documents dealt with divine revelation (Dei verbum), sacred liturgy, the church in the modern world (Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes), the instruments of social communication, ecumenism, Eastern Catholic Churches, the renewal of religious life, the laity, the ministry and life of priests, missionary activity, Christian education, the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions (Nostra aetate), and religious freedom. Through them was affirmed the primacy of scripture as a means of renewal.

But, as time proved, not all of the documents were satisfactory. Relying on the "spirit of the council" that was still to be defined, the council fathers discovered that implementation of some of the leading texts was controversial. Initial reactions to the council had been generally favorable, but conservative Roman Catholic groups came to fear that the reforms had become too radical. If most of these conservatives obediently admitted the changes (although feeling, like Evelyn Waugh, that the council was a "bitter trial"), a small minority of them decided to challenge the authority of both the council and the popes who carried out its decrees. The greatest achievement of the council, the schemata on religious liberty, proved to be at the very root of a schism within the church. Thus if opposition to changes in the church's liturgy became a rallying point for the discontented, the contention generally regarded the idea of any religious freedom. The most prominent leader of the "Roman Catholic traditionalists" was to be found in France. Marcel Lefebvre, who in 1970 founded an international group known as the "Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X," rejected the doctrinal and disciplinary reforms instituted by Vatican II.

Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council was "one of the greatest events in the history of the Church," as Paul VI put it in his closing address. Conceived by Pope John XXIII and continued under Paul VI, the program of reforms initiated by Vatican II proved to be both an aggiornamento and a rinnovamento (renewal). The refreshing of Catholic thought led to new pastoral experiences and unexpected friendships and dialogue with other religious traditions, bringing new richness to the Roman Catholic Church that continued into the early twenty-first century. The council opened a new era in the church's history. No longer a "fortress church," the Roman Catholic Church succeeded in departing from the First Vatican Council's harsh framework. With a new understanding of the church and its mission, and through a new expression of its faith adapted to modern conditions, the Roman Catholic Church developed a new and fruitful relationship with the world.

See alsoCatholicism; John XXIII; Paul VI.


Congar, Yves. Mon Journal du Concile 1960–1963. Paris, 2002.

——. Mon Journal du Concile 1964–1966. Paris, 2002.

Flannery, Austin. Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Northport, N.Y., 1996.

Fouilloux, Étienne, and Giuseppe Alberigo, directors, Histoire du concile Vatican II (1959–1965). 4 vols. Paris, 1997–2003.

"How Vatican II Changed the Church." Series of articles published in the Tablet (England) in 2002.

Ivereigh, Austen, ed. Unfinished Journey: The Church 40 Years after Vatican II. London, 2003.

Reid, Scott M. P., ed. A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes. 2nd ed. London, 2000.

Olivier Rota

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Vatican II

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