The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was a pastoral, non-dogmatic ecumenical council of the Catholic church opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. That the Council was pastoral and non-dogmatic is made clear by the Opening Address of the Second Vatican Council given by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. It has often been cited as the most significant event in Catholicism in the 20th century.

For Catholics, the most visible results of various interpretations of the Council's sixteen documents were changes in how church sacraments were practiced, the use of vernacular languages for the Mass, and a revolutionary new attitude towards their relationship with Jews. Various interpretations of the council documents also brought less visible, but fundamental changes in how the Catholic church saw itself and its relationship with other faiths and the world. The outcome of the most commonly accepted interpretations of its documents has been widely accepted by Catholics worldwide, but not without opposition (see, for example, traditional Catholicism and sedevacantism).

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Sessions
3 Issues
4 Effects of the Council
5 Effects of the Council in the United States of America
6 Documents
7 Aftermath
8 External Links


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 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 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" -- in spite of Pope Gregory XVI's Mirari Vos which warned against those ideas 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 "better" address those challenges, changes they thought long overdue. 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 had no such qualms, however, and 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, opened a window and reportedly said "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in." In order not to offend the Orthodox in Communist countries, he consented, through the Pact of Metz, to a policy that became known as Ostpolitik, which ensured that the Council would not confront the realities of Communism.


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, made up mostly of members of the Roman Curia, produced 73 proposed consitutions and decrees (known as schemas) 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.

The general sessions of the council were held in the fall of four successive years (in four periods) 1962-1965. 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. This 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 addtion, 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. 17 Orthodox and Protestant denominations were represented by observers.

First Period (October 11 to December 8, 1962)

The council formally opened in a public session which included the Council Fathers as well as representatives of 86 governments and international bodies. In the first general session, the bishops voted to not 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. However these halted after the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963. Pope Paul VI was elected on June 22, 1963, and immediately announced that the council would continue.

Second Period (September 29 to December 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 schemas 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:

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 schemas on the church, bishops and dioceses, and ecumenism. On November 8, 1963, Joseph Cardinal Frings openly criticized the Holy Office (once known as the Inquisition) which drew a vehement defense of it by its Secretary, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani. This exchange is often considered the most dramatic of the council.

Third Period (September 14 to November 21, 1964)

In the period between the second and third periods, the proposed schemas 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. Schemas 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.

Schemas 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 schemas, 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 Period (September 14 to December 8, 1965)

Eleven schemas 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 Humanae). 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)(Perfectae Caritatis), education for the priesthood (Optatam Totius), Christian education (Gravissimum Educationis) and the role of the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem).

One of the most influential documents was Nostra Aetate, which affirmed, as did the documents of the 16th century Council of Trent, that "the Jews" as individuals 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 joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led up to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches. 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 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 second chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. This chapter, titled On the People of God, sought to clearly define that the Church is all those who believe in Christ:

At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness... (LG 9)

In opposition to previous papal assertions that the Roman Catholic Church "is" the Church of Christ, the council declared that the single, unified Church "subsists in" the Roman Catholic Church "which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure" (LG 8). The hierarchical teaching structure of Church was reconfirmed, while stressing the unique roles that religious orders and lay persons had, and that there was a "universal call to holiness", for all Christians.


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 its ideas of "active anticipation" than previous Popes allowed. The council fathers established guidelines to govern the revision of the liturgy, which included allowing the use of local languages instead of Latin, in direct opposition to Quo Primum by Pope St. Pius V and to Mediator Dei by Pope Pius XII. As bishops (individually or in groups) determined, local or national customs could be carefully incorporated into the liturgy.

Most of the concrete work of liturgical revision was actually carried out by commissions after the councils, and by national and regional conferences of bishops. Foremost among these commissions was the Consilium, headed by Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, a suspected Freemason, who was aided by Protestants.

Scripture and Divine Revelation

The council sought to revive the central role of scripture in the theological and devotional life of the Church, while continuing the work of 20th century popes in carefully crafting a more modern approach to scriptural analysis and interpretation. This would involve revelation both by scripture and tradition. An approach to interpretation that is open to research into the sources and forms of scripture was approved by the bishops, under the governance and guidance of the church's teaching authority. The Church was to continue to provide versions of the Bible in the "mother tongue" of the faithful, and both clergy and laity were to make Bible study a central part of their lives. This merely affirmed the importance of Sacred Scripture as attested to by Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII and the writings of the Saints, Doctors, and Popes throughout Church history.

The Bishops

Prior to the council, the Catholic Church was often described as a rigidly hierarchical organization, with priests answering to bishops, bishops answering to archbishops or primates and on upward to the Pope at the apex. At Vatican II, certain council fathers, in the name of "collegiality," sought to elevate the role of a bishop while downplaying the role of the Petrine Ministry (i.e., the role of the Pope). In addition, the role of the bishops grouped together, as the whole College of Bishops (as in the council), or in particular groups for specific places, was enhanced. These bishops' conferences have taken over much of the role that archbishops and provinces played in the past and, coupled with the downplaying of the Petrine Ministry, have given the Church two earthly heads: the College of Bishops and the Pope. Traditional Catholics argue that this emphasis on "collegiality" is not only wrong in terms of ecclesiology, but has led to a rampant lack of discipline.

Effects of the Council

Many hail the Second Vatican Council as a modernizing event that has brought the Church away from its dogmatic view of Scripture, devotion to Scholasticism, and firm ideas on the "Four Last Things" (i.e., Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell). They see Vatican II as being the beginning of a "New Springtime" what has been a source of renewal and revitalization for what they believe was a stagnant institution. Others view the Council as having been a negative (or mostly negative) influence for those very same reasons. Traditional Catholics tend to see the Council as having changed the focus of the Church from the "saving of souls" to centering on man's temporal well-being.

Effects of the Council in the United States of America

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

Priests in USA:
1930-1965 doubled to 58,000
since 1965: 45,000
Projection: by 2020: 31,000, half over 70

Priestless parishes:
1965: 1%
2002: 15%

Ordinations in USA:
1965: 1,575
2002: 450

1965: 49,000
2002: 4,700 ( -90%)

1965: 600
2002: 200

1965: 180,000
2002: 75,000, average age 68

Teaching nuns:
1965: 104,000
2002: 8,200 ( -94%)

1965: 3,559
2000: 389

Christian Brothers seminarians:
1965: 912
2000: 7

1965: 3,379
2000: 84

Catholic High Schools: -50%

Catholic Parochial Schools: -4,000

Catholic marriages: -33%

1968: 338
2002: 50,000

Mass attendance:
1958: 3 out of 4
2002: 1 out of 4

Lay religious teachers who agree with:
contraception: 90%
abortion: 53%
divorce and remarriage: 65%
missing Mass: 77%

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

There is debate as to the meaning of statistics such as these, which are often used by traditional Catholics to buttress their case that the ambiguity of Vatican II documents, and interpretations of those documents, have had a negative impact on the Church. Some Catholics believe that the use of such statistics as a premise of the traditional Catholic argument manifests the logical fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Traditional Catholics, citing research conducted by Fordham University's Dr. James Lothian which compared the above sorts of statistics with those relevant to Protestantism, argue that no such decline has occured in Protestant faith communities of the same time period.


The complete text of the 16 principal documents are available online at several locations:





External Links