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The 2nd Vatican Council

Starting with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 the Catholic Church established a tradition of ecumenical Council meetings to help decide on and shape the future of the Church. The most recent Council, called Vatican II, is considered to be both the largest ever in scope and also the most ground breaking in the amount of change it yielded. The changes in doctrine, dogma and procedure they enacted had major effects both inside and outside the Catholic Church and continue to today.

Before the Vatican II the Catholic Church was an aging dinosaur, still crippled by the Reformation and unable to relate to contemporary man. It emerged from it a modern Church, tolerant and accepting of other religions, accessible to the laity and ready to grip with this age of reason over faith. I contend that the Vatican II council, while not being perfect or perhaps as progressive as it should have been, was just what the Catholic Church needed if it intended to maintain its status as one of the largest denominations on Earth.

This paper is divided up in to two portions, the first a historical account of events of the council and the second an analysis of the most important of the 16 documents approved by the assembled Fathers and their effect on the Catholic Church.

WHAT HAPPENED On January 25th 1959, Pope John XXIII announced that he was assembling what was to be the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. He proclaimed to his closest advisors that the purpose of the council would be “to proclaim the truth, bring Christians closer to the faith, and contribute at the same time to peace and prosperity on earth.” Pope John immediately made it very clear that his papal reign, which up until this point was considered rather inconsequential, was going to make a difference.

Councils of the church are called to contemplate and reevaluate the church’s position on matters such as church administration, doctrine and discipline. An ecumenical council is a worldwide council that can only be called by the pope. All bishops and other high-ranking members of the whole church are to be present. This was to be the first major council in the Church since the original Vatican Council that was convened in 1869-1870.

Immediately after the pope’s order the Vatican’s bureaucracy of religious leaders, which is known as the Curia, sprung into action. Their preparatory commissions produced seventy proposals that encompassed over 2000 pages. That alone doubled the amount of documents created by the previous twenty councils combined. Many were concerned that when the council officially began it would be so weighed down by the breadth of its task that the bishops would be unable to make changes significant to the contemporary man. That concern would soon be dispelled.

In recent times, the Curia had grown very confident in their authority over the rest of the Church’s bishops since the decree of papal infallibility made at the 1st Vatican Council. They expected the rest of the church’s leaders to arrive in Rome and essentially “rubber stamp” their decisions. However, despite the Curia’s attempts to keep it hidden there was a great deal of discontent in the church. That was illustrated by the thousands of submittals that were sent to the church for possible inclusion in the council.

On the first day of meetings during the first session in October 11th 1962 it became clear that real introspection would be inevitable and that the Curia would not be placidly followed. Cardinal Lieneat of France and Cardinal Frings of Germany took the first step by successful challenging the pre-selection of the members of the ten committees that would be in control the council voice. Once that happened, the assembled leaders and the world at-large knew that this would be more than a “rubber stamp” council.

That first session lasted until December 8th and did not end with any documents approved or consensus found. Of the seventy projects that had been proposed only one had garnered any sort of the popular approval, that was the reformation of the liturgy or official prayer of the church. Council members wanted to increase the level of emphasis placed on Christ by Catholics and raise the Church’s level of community. Despite the lack of concrete results the first session was still very encouraging. The council as a whole got a feel for the procedure of the meetings and began to get to know each other. Things looked very promising for future sessions.

On June 3rd 1963, Pope John XXIII died. Immediately the future of the 2nd Vatican Council was in jeopardy. Would his successor allow the meetings to continue? If so, would the bishops be able to discuss their views as freely under the pope as under the old one?

It was well known that before his death Pope John favored Cardinal Montini as his successor. With the consent of the former Bishop of Rome behind him his election bid was easily successful. After ascension to the position of pope Montini adopted the name of Paul VI. He then eased the worries of the proponents of the council by setting September 29th as the beginning of the second session.

The second session, which last nine weeks, produced the first actual results. Two documents were approved on liturgical reform on communications media. They also set up an agenda of two themes for future sessions, the study of the Church’s nature and study of how it relates to the modern world. Also another program that received a majority backing was the agreement on a new attitude of friendship with non-Catholic Christians and the acknowledgment of the positive content of the other major religious. While most of these issues received well over ninety percent support from the Fathers in attendance there was a small conservative minority on every issue that stayed united and firmly entrenched against all change to the Church and it’s central government in Rome.

The third session began on September 14 and lasted until November 21 in the fall of 1964. It brought strong wins for the progressive majority. During this session, statements were approved that spoke on what the purpose of the Church is and documents were passed that detailed the Church’s stance on ecumenism. However, after those two successes the proceedings slowed to a halt when the “conservative” minority was able to prevent any further votes. The session ended on a sour note when Pope Paul VI sided with the minority on several issues (MacEoin).

Session number four was characterized by an intellectual fatigue. The progressives sensed they had gained as much reform as was wise for the time and backed off for the moment, avoiding what might have been a nasty confrontation. The conservatives on the other hand, knew they did not have the support to launch a counteroffensive and just tried to hold on to what they still had left. No new documents were approved during this session.

The fifth and final session shed the guarded positioning and politicking that marked the previous session and moved along quiet swiftly with what remained on the agenda. By far the most industriously productive of all the sessions, eleven documents were approved. Also approved was a 30,000-word review of the Church and its role in the world (MacEoin). Additionally included were revolutionary statements on Jews and members of other religious faiths. Although both statements were partially scarred by compromises with hard-line conservatives they still represented a huge shift in the Church’s mentality towards non-Catholics.

Following the fifth session the council was called to a close. The over 2,500 Church leaders went home after over 300 hours of debate, several metric tons of written suggestions and over 500 votes (MacEoin). The result was 16 documents that would be promulgated from the mouth of the pope himself.

The Church under the leadership of two courageous popes had taken steps to adapt to the modern world. What were these changes? How radical where they? Would they have any effect on the Church in its day-to-day activities? What are some problems people have with the revisions? I will try answer these questions in the next section.

WHAT IT MEANS The Catholic Church emerged with 16 decrees, constitutions and declarations from the Vatican II council. Three had the most lasting and immediate effect on the Church and its members. I will now discuss them individually.

One of the main priorities of their work was to make the church more accessible to the laity, or common man. They had come to realize “…Christians will not be Christians by custom and tradition, but only by a personal faith attained in a difficult struggle and perpetually renewed…”(Sacrosanctum Concilium). In compliance with that avowal the Council went about changing both the form of the Mass and the language in which it should be delivered. It was one of the first platforms approved by the Council and to many Catholics the program that most changed their Christian Experience. Up to that point all the Catholic Churches in the world that fell under the Pope’s authority delivered the rites, sermons and gospel in Latin, a language understood only by a small minority of educated Church members. It had become popular opinion among most Church leaders that if the Mass is to reach out to and involve the people it must be expressed in a language the people can understand. The Council came to a consensus on the issue and decreed that while retaining Latin as the official language of the Church they would allow and encourage Priests to use the vernacular in the rites and mass. Since the founding of the Church in the 3rd century and the development of Mass in medieval times Latin had been the language used for all ceremonies and worship. This step by the Council to convert to the “living languages” set aside hundreds of years of tradition and altered the Church in a way to make it more within reach of the common man.

Beyond just the adoption of the vernacular the Council also took steps to change the format of the Mass. Prior to the reforms of the Vatican Council there was a very obvious barrier between layman and priest during all Church services. The priests faced away from the pews and toward the alter during the service, turning his back on the congregation. Also during the ritual of Holy Communion only the priest was aloud to drink from the chalice holding the wine representing the Christ’s blood, the laypeople were only aloud to eat the bread. The Council, in an effort to bring the people and the priests closer together, began encouraged priests to face the congregation while speaking. Also they began allowing the congregation to partake in the drinking of the communal wine on special occasions such as weddings. While some opposed these decisions, claiming that the Council was bringing about the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church, they were in a very small minority. These liturgy reforms were the key reform in the Church’s efforts of aggiornamento, which translates to “bringing the church up to date”. They were so because more than any other reform this symbolized a shifted emphasis, the people had become the most important member of the Church.

At this point in history the Church was grappling with a number of questions away from exclusively dogmatic or theological issues. The most controversial issue of that nature was certainly the Church’s stance on Jews, Non-Catholic Christians and members of the world’s other great religions. There was a great deal of prejudice against non-Catholics that had been institutionalized by the Church since its creation. The most shocking of which was the labeling of all Jews past and present as “deicides”, which means killers of God. In reality the Scripture only points to several Jews thousands of years ago who were responsible for Jesus’s death.

When the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, which was established by Pope John XIII and headed by Cardinal Bea, submitted a proposal to the Council that demolished the claim of Jews as deicides it was met with strong opposition. Many of the conservative Fathers saw Anti-Semitism as any good Catholic’s right and duty. Their defense, as with most issues at the Council, was that tradition was on their side. That is a familiar pattern in the Catholic Church, where tradition is often placed above scripture and even more tragically placed before reason. Unfortunately, Cardinal Bea’s proposal was unable to pass a vote without alterations. To garner a majority vote the document had to be changed. The passage absolving Jews from deicide was replaced by a command forbidding Catholics from portraying them as guilty of such a crime. It did not address the question of if they actually were guilty or not. That back handed shift of words was indeed what allowed the bill to pass, but at what cost?

Even after that small victory in rewording the statement, the conservative minority was not satisfied. They removed from the document from the docket of promulgation without authorization; there by delaying it’s instatement. Moreover, the Council’s valuable time had to be wasted in sorting out when the promulgation was to take place. Finally, on September 30, 1965 the pope promulgated the statement without the crucial word deicide but still condemning all “displays of Anti-Semitism”. The Church had taken a very positive step in the right direction but it was still unable to make all the most positive reforms.

Also passed with the decree on Anti-Semitism were similar decrees covering the Church’s position on other non-Catholics. Since the reformation the Church had maintained a hostile and almost competitive relationship with Protestant faiths. The Council tried to reverse this position by acknowledging the existence of other valid Christian faiths and eluding that in the future the goal was an inevitable rebirth of a unified Christian faith. Furthermore, the Council for the first time recognized the goodness inherent in the other great religions of the world. This show of respect toward believers in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the other major religions was unexpected before the proceedings in Rome but received massive support when introduced to the Council at-large.

Another very vital document passed by the Council was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Prior to this document the Church had, as I mentioned earlier, placed tradition on equal ground as scripture. This Constitution instead attempts to officially relate Scripture and tradition, which can be defined as all post biblical teachings of the Church. It asserts the greater value of Scripture towards the eternal salvation of men but also leaves the door open for contemporary study and interpretation of the Bible. This Constitution helped to establish a more modern environment where Catholics could openly study, question or confirm Catholic teachings without fear and also restores the dominance of the Bible’s teaches over that of non-Scripture.

When the Council had closed many Church members would proclaim it as the salvation of the Church and prime example of divine inspiration. While in truth it probably did little more than grant official consent to the beliefs that were already present by that time in the minds of the majority of Fathers. It still was a necessary step and required a lot of bravery on the part of those involved. Without it the Church may well have become a trivial antiquity too stuck in its old ways to be in any way relevant to the modern world.

Works Cited

  • Basset, Bernard. Preist in the piazza. Goal line tribute to a council, with illustrations by Penelope Harter. Fresno: Academy Guild Press, 1963.
  • Berkouwer, G.C. The Second Vatican Council and the new Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965
  • Caporale, Rock. Vatican II: Last of the councils. Balitmore: Helicon, 1964.
  • Catholic Church: Pope John XXIII. Apostolic letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: on the 25 anniversay of the promulgation of the conciliar Constitution “Sacrosanctum Concilium” on the Sacred Liturgy. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1988.
  • MacEoin, Gary. What Happened at Rome? The Council and Its Implications for the Modern World. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. Theological Highlights of Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press, 1967.







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