The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (popularly known as Vatican II) was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. Four future pontiffs took part in the Council's opening session: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding Pope John XXIII took the name of Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II; and 35-year-old Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who more than 40 years later became Pope Benedict XVI.

The far-reaching reforms enacted by the Council impacted virtually every element of Catholic life, as they included a new vision of the role of the Church in modern life, a (then) radical focus on ecumenism (stressing, to an extent, the shared religious vision of all Christians), and a reinterpretation of the liturgy (with a focus on encouraging lay participation). Though these developments were not without their critics, few could deny that these developments were central in maintaining a dialog between the Church and modern social realities.

According to Hans Küng, who served as an expert theological advisor for the Council, its primary purpose, as envisioned by John XXIII, was Church reunion, and it would be reached when the Catholic Church could deem its traditional doctrine itself not as unchangeable but rather as a historical, spatiotemporal expression of God's eternal truth.


Throughout the 1950s, Roman Catholic theological and biblical studies had begun to shift away from the neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism that had largely prevailed since the First Vatican Council. This shift could be seen in the writings of innovative theologians, such as Karl Rahner S.J., and John Courtney Murray S.J., who looked to integrate modern human experience with Christian dogma, as well as others such as Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Henri de Lubac, who sought to develop a more accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers, which they understood could provide an engine of spiritual and theological renewal (French: ressourcement). On a more practical level, the world's bishops also faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Though the First Vatican Council, which had been held nearly a century before, had attempted to resolve some of these issues, it had been interrupted by the conflict associated with the Italian unification. As a result, only the deliberations concerning the role of the Papacy were completed, with numerous issues pertaining to pastoral and dogmatic concerns left unaddressed.12

Pope John XXIII, however, gave notice of his intention to convene the Council on 25 January 1959, less than three months after his election in October 1958. While he expressed his intentions in many messages over the next three years in formal detail, one of the best known images is of Pope John, when asked why the Council was needed, reportedly opening a window and saying, "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in." He invited other Christian Churches to send observers to the Council. Acceptances came from both Protestant and Orthodox Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church, in fear of reprisal from the Soviet Government, accepted only when assured that the Council would be apolitical in nature.3


Preparations for the Council, which took more than two years, included the involvement of ten specialized commissions, members of the mass media, representatives of other religious traditions, and a Central Commission for overall coordination. These groups, composed mostly of members of the Roman Curia, produced seven schemata (detailed, multi-part theological and ecclesiological statements) intended for consideration by the Council. It was expected that these groups would be succeeded by similarly constituted commissions during the Council itself, who would refine their work and present it to the Council. These proposals were, in general, expected to be approved. After a (nearly) unanimous rejection of the tone and content of these treatises, they were unilaterally rejected in the first session of the Council, which required the formulation of new proposals that were more in keeping with the ethos of the Council.4

The general sessions of the Council were held in the fall of four successive years (in four periods), 1962-1965. After the conclusions of a session, special commissions met to review and collate the work of the bishops and to prepare for the next period. The meetings themselves were held in Latin, the official language of the Church, in Saint Peter's Basilica, with the privacy of participants (in terms of the opinions expressed) kept as a primary consideration. Though these formalized discussions and debates were the centerpiece of the Council, much of the work was also accomplished in a variety of other commission meetings (which could be held in other languages), as well as through diverse informal meetings and social contacts outside of the Council proper.

2,908 men, referred to as "Council Fathers," were entitled to seats at the Council. Their number included all Roman Catholic bishops, as well as the superiors of male religious orders. Over twenty-five hundred of the invited took part in the opening session, making it the largest gathering in any council in church history. Even in later sessions, around twenty-two hundred members (on average) were in attendance. In addition to the direct participants, a varying number of periti (Latin: "experts") were present as theological consultants-a group that turned out to have a major influence on the proceedings of the Council. More than three dozen representatives of other Christian communities (including seventeen Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations) were present at the opening session, and the number grew to nearly 100 by the end of the 4th Council Session.4

First Session (Autumn 1962)

Pope John opened the Council on October 11, 1962 in a public session that included the Council Fathers as well as representatives of 86 governments and international bodies. Following a Eucharistic service, the Pope read an address to the assembled bishops entitled Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Latin : "Mother Church Rejoices"). In the speech, he rejected the thoughts of "prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster" in the world and in the future of the Church. Instead, Pope John stressed the pastoral, rather than doctrinal, nature of the Council, arguing that the Church did not need to repeat or reformulate existing doctrines and dogmata but rather had to teach Christ's message in light of the modern world's ever-changing trends. He exhorted the Council Fathers "to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity" in the documents they would produce.5

In their first working session, the bishops voted not to proceed as planned by the curial preparatory commissions but to consult first 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 a changing of the priority of issues considered. The issues under discussion included liturgy, mass communication, the Eastern Catholic 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.6

After adjournment on December 8, work began on preparations for the sessions scheduled for 1963. These preparations, however, were halted upon the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963. Pope Paul VI was elected on June 21, 1963 and immediately announced that the Council would continue.7

Second Session (Autumn 1963)

In the months prior to the second 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 schemata to seventeen (which were made more general, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the Council) and later eliminating the requirement of secrecy surrounding general sessions.8

The new pontiff attempted to stress the second session's continuity with John XXIII's overall vision, albeit with several minor changes of emphasis. These new emphases were brought forward in Pope Paul's opening address on September 29, 1963, which stressed the pastoral nature of the Council and set out four overarching aims for the consideration of those assembled:

  • to more fully define the nature of the church and the role of the bishop;
  • to renew the church (through a reevaluation of scripture and tradition);
  • to restore unity among all Christians, including offering an apology for those elements of disunity sown by the Catholic Church in the past; and
  • to initiate a dialogue with the contemporary world.9

During this period, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium)10 and the decree on the media of social communication (Inter Mirifica).11 Work progressed on the schemata pertaining to the Church, bishops and dioceses, and ecumenism. On November 8, 1963, Cardinal Joseph Frings criticized the Holy Office (known before 1908 as the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition), which drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani. This exchange is often considered the most dramatic of the Council. Despite this flare-up, the second session, which ended on December 4, still made progress on various important issues (from the role of the laity to the modification of the liturgy).1213

Third Session (Autumn 1964)

In the period between the second and third sessions, the proposed schemata 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 post-conciliar commissions handling the implementation of these measures.

During this session, which began on September 14, 1964, the Council Fathers worked through a large volume of proposals. Schemata on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio),14 the Eastern Rite churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum),15 and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)16 were approved and promulgated by the Pope. Eight religious and seven lay women observers were invited to the sessions of the third period, along with additional male lay observers.17

A votum or statement concerning the sacrament of marriage was submitted for the guidance of the commission revising the Code of Canon Law regarding a wide variety of juridical, 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 contraception, which had arisen in part due to the advent of effective oral contraceptives, to a commission of clerical and lay experts that he had appointed. Likewise, schemata 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 schemata, 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.1819

Pope Paul closed the third session on November 21 by announcing a change in the Eucharistic fast and formally declaring Mary as "Mother of the Church." This second statement was made in deference to those Catholics who viewed Marian devotion as a key component of Catholicity.20

Fourth Session (Autumn 1965)

Pope Paul opened the last session of the Council on September 14, 1965 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 Humanæ.21 The principal work of the rest of the period was the resolution of three other important schemata, all of which were approved by the Council Fathers. The lengthened and revised pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et Spes22 was followed by decrees on missionary activity, Ad Gentes, 23 and on the ministry and lives of priests Presbyterorum Ordinis.24

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,25 the life of persons in religious orders (expanded and modified from earlier sessions, finally titled Perfectæ Caritatis,26 education for the priesthood Optatam Totius,27 Christian education Gravissimum Educationis,28 and the role of the laity Apostolicam Actuositatem. 29

One of the most ecumenically progressive documents ratified in this session was Nostra Ætate,30 which stated that Jews (both historically and in the present day) are no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians:

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.31

A major symbolic event from the final days of the Council was meeting between Pope Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras, where both leaders took part in a joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led up to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches. This ecumenical sentiment was formalized in the Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration of 1965.32

On December 8, 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 in 1965 the title and procedures of the Holy Office, giving it the name of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as the titles and competences of other departments of the Roman curia; and
  • appointed permanent secretariates for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers.33

The spirit of peace, reform, and ecumenism that had initially prompted the convening of the Council was equally present in its conclusion, as attested to in Paul VI's farewell address:

This greeting is, before all, universal. It is addressed to all of you assisting and participating here in this sacred rite: to you, venerable brothers in the episcopate; to you, representatives of nations; to you, people of God. And it is extended and broadened to the entire world. How could it be otherwise if this council was said to be and is ecumenical, that is to say, universal? Just as the sound of the bell goes out through the skies, reaching each one within the radius of its sound waves, so at this moment does our greeting go out to each and every one of you. To those who receive it and to those who do not, it resounds pleadingly in the ear of every man. From this Catholic center of Rome, no one, in principle, is unreachable; in principle, all men can and must be reached. For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away. Every one to whom our greeting is addressed is one who is called, who is invited and who, in a certain sense, is present. This is the language of the heart of one who loves. Every loved one is present! And we, especially at this moment, in virtue of our universal pastoral and apostolic mandate, we love all, all men.…

Greetings to you, brothers, who are unjustly detained in silence, in oppression, and in the privation of the legitimate and sacred rights owed to every honest man, and much more to you who are the workmen of nothing but good, piety and peace. To hindered and humiliated brethren, the Church is with you. She is with your faithful and with all those who have a part in your painful condition! May this also be the civil conscience of the world!

Lastly, our universal greeting goes out to you, men who do not know us, men who do not understand us, men who do not regard us as useful, necessary or friendly. This greeting goes also to you, men who, while perhaps thinking they are doing good, are opposed to us. A sincere greeting, an unassuming greeting but one filled with hope and, today, please believe that it is filled with esteem and love.

This is our greeting. But please be attentive, you who are listening to us. We ask you to consider how our greeting, differently from what ordinarily happens in day to day conversation, would serve to terminate a relationship of nearness or discourse. Our greeting tends to strengthen and, if necessary, to produce a spiritual relationship whence it draws its meaning and its voice. Ours is a greeting, not of farewell which separates, but of friendship which remains, and which, if so demanded, wishes to be born. It is even precisely in this last expression that our greeting, on the one hand, would desire to reach the heart of every man, to enter therein as a cordial guest and speak in the interior silence of your individual souls, the habitual and ineffable words of the Lord: "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, but not as the world gives it" (John 14:27)-Christ has His own special way of speaking in the secrets of hearts-and in the other hand, our greeting wants to be a different and higher relationship because it is not only a two-sided exchange of words among us people of this earth, but it also brings into the picture another present one, the Lord Himself, invisible but working in the framework of human relationships. It invites Him and begs of Him to arouse in him who greets and in him who is greeted new gifts of which the first and highest is charity.

Behold, this is our greeting. May it rise as a new spark of divine charity in our hearts, a spark which may enkindle the principles, doctrine and proposals which the council has organized and which, thus inflamed by charity, may really produce in the Church and in the world that renewal of thoughts, activities, conduct, moral force and hope and joy which was the very scope of the council.34



One of the first issues considered by the Council was the revision of the liturgy, a reform that had a notable and immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics. The central concept, as expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, centered around encouraging the active participation of lay Catholics:

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.35

Vatican II went much further in encouraging "active participation" than previous Popes had allowed or recommended. The Council Fathers established guidelines to govern the revision of the liturgy, which included allowing the very limited use of the vernacular (native language) instead of Latin. Also, it became admissible to incorporate local or national customs into the liturgy at the discretion of the local bishop:

Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.

Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.36

Implementation of the Council's directives on the liturgy was carried out under the authority of Pope Paul VI through a specially convened papal commission, later incorporated in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This administrative body was expected to collaborate with the national conferences of bishops in defining the revised liturgy (possibly including the translation of texts and rites) that would be seen as appropriate for a particular region.37

The Church

The most theologically profound product of the Second Vatican Council was its refinement of the Catholic ecclesiology: that is, its understanding of the nature, character, and purpose of the Church. This understanding is detailed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).

In its first chapter, entitled "The Mystery of the Church," the character of the Catholic Church is defined by the famous statement that:

the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as 'the pillar and mainstay of the truth'. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him (Lumen Gentium, 8).

Despite this dogmatic declaration, the document (in the interests of ecumenism) immediately adds: "Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.38

In the second chapter, entitled "On the People of God," the Council teaches that God wills the salvation of entire groups of people, instead of individuals. For this reason God chose the Israelite people to be his own people and established a covenant with them, as a preparation for the covenant ratified by the life and death of Christ. Participation in the the Church, which is built around this sacrifice, constitutes the defining characteristic of the new People of God (Lumen Gentium, 9). All human beings are called to belong to the Church. Not all are fully incorporated into the Church, but "the Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christ, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter" (Lumen Gentium, 15) and even with "those who have not yet received the Gospel," among whom Jews and Muslims are explicitly mentioned (Lumen Gentium, 16).

'Proclaiming saving truth to the ends of the earth' expresses the very purpose and being of the Church and without it the Church would not indeed be herself. Only thus can we bring to achievement the catholicity and unity of God's people: all humanity fully within one Church, and the one Church fully diversified with the variety of mankind.39

In this way, the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium attempts to balance between a commitment to the (unilateral) salvific power of the Catholic Church with a more inclusivistic, ecumenical world-view.

The third chapter, "The Church is Hierarchical," served to outline the essential roles of the laity, priests, bishops and of the Roman Pontiff within the Church's organizational structure (as discussed below). Following this, the text proceeds to explore the specific role of the laity, to discuss the notion of a generalized call to holiness, and to expound upon the doctrines relating to Mary and Marian devotion. Of these, the chapters on the "call to holiness" are of the most significant, as they suggest that sanctity should not be the exclusive province of priests and religious, but rather that all Christians are called to holiness.

The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one-that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity (Lumen Gentium, 41).

The chapter on Mary was the subject of debate. Original plans had called for a separate document about the role of Mary, keeping the document on the Church "ecumenical," in the sense of being non-controversial to Protestant Christians, who viewed special veneration of Mary with suspicion. However, the Council Fathers insisted, with the support of the Pope, that, as Mary's place is within the Church, treatment of her should appear within the Constitution on the Church.40

Analyzing these developments in Catholic ecclesiology, Kloppenburg offers the following theological assessment:

The values now being stressed are authentically Biblical, evangelical, and patristic. In becoming less inhibited and formalistic the Church of Vatican II is becoming enriched: more spontaneous, more human, more Christian. It is also of great importance that in becoming less legalistic and juridical (which obviously does not mean doing away with necessary structures and laws) and especially in becoming less highly organized and less antecedently determined in every detail of life, the Church is better able to be the sign and instrument of the Holy Spirit. Excessive organization and determination of details always run the risk of not giving sufficient scope to the Holy Spirit. Man, even the Christian, even the pope, can stifle the spirit. But all will be well "as long as they priests are docile to Christ's spirit, who vivifies and leads them."41

This perspective is strongly evidenced in Vatican II's broadened understanding of the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The Role of the Bishopric

Following Vatican II, the role of the bishops within the Church was invested with renewed prominence, especially given its characterization as an organization that has succeeded the Apostles in teaching and governing the Church. However, this college does not exist without the pontiff: the successor of St. Peter. The claim that the Council gave the Church two separate earthly heads (the College of Bishops and the Pope) was countered by the "Preliminary Explanatory Note" appended to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which reads: "There is no such thing as the college without its head… and in the college the head preserves intact his function as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal Church. In other words it is not a distinction between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops taken together, but between the Roman Pontiff by himself and the Roman Pontiff along with the bishops."

In many countries, bishops already held regular conferences to discuss common matters. The Second Vatican Council simply required the setting up of such episcopal conferences, entrusting to them responsibility for adapting the worship practices of the community to local needs.42 Certain decisions of the conferences have binding force for individual bishops and their dioceses, but only if adopted by a two-thirds majority and confirmed by the Holy See.43

Scripture and divine revelation

The Council sought to revive the central role of Scripture in the theological and devotional life of the Church, building upon the work of earlier popes in crafting a modern approach to Scriptural analysis and interpretation. The Church was to continue to provide versions of the Bible in the "mother tongues" of the faithful, and both clergy and laity were to continue to make Bible study a central part of their lives. This teaching affirmed the importance of Sacred Scripture as attested by Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus, Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, and the writings of the saints, doctors, and popes throughout Church history.44

Criticism of the Council within the