Second Vatican Council

I was spending an evening with some friends, all of them Catholics, when conversation turned to the Second Vatican Council. I don’t know if younger Catholics think much about Vatican II these days, but Catholics often do whose memories go back to the Church as it was before the great council of 1962 to 1965. Often, too, opinions are divided. 

vatican bishops
Bishops fill St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council. CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo

They were this time. Citing all the mishaps Catholicism had suffered since Vatican II, one man blamed the council. “What did we need a council for anyway?” he demanded. 

Another man begged to differ. 

“I share many of the same concerns and reservations,” he told the others. “But imagine what the Church would be like today if there’d been no council. Do you really believe we could have stood pat on the Church of Pope Pius XII — or the Church of Blessed John XXIII, for that matter — and expected people to take the Church seriously now? I don’t.” 

An older man, a professor of philosophy at a Catholic university, spoke up. With satisfaction he told us his children were all practicing Catholics. “But I’m pretty sure,” he added, “that they wouldn’t have stuck with the Church except for the council.” 

Some agreed with that, others didn’t. “I guess I’m just a pre-Vatican II Catholic,” the one who’d spoken first said with a shrug. 

Split opinions

As the Church prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the Oct. 11, 1962, opening of the Second Vatican Council, discussions like this, both formal and informal, are likely to be fairly common. A half-century later, Catholics aren’t all of one mind about Vatican II. 

Perhaps there’s some help to be found in recalling the frequently surprising, occasionally remarkable events that led up to the Second Council of the Vatican, which historians often call the most important Catholic event of the 20th century because of the sweeping changes it introduced. 

This was the 21st ecumenical council in the two-millennium history of the Catholic Church. “Ecumenical” means worldwide in scope, and an ecumenical council is a Church gathering open in principle to all the world’s bishops in union with the pope, the bishop of Rome. It’s convened by him, and he presides, either in person or through legates. To possess authority, conciliar decisions must be accepted by the pope.

The bishops who take part in a council are called its “fathers.” Although in a sense they represent the whole Church, they aren’t there by election but by reason of their office as successors of the apostles. 

Vatican II was far and away the largest ecumenical council ever, with 2,860 bishops attending some or all of it.  

The council met in four two-month sessions, October to December, from 1962 to 1965, with general assemblies held in St. Peter’s Basilica.  

Counting preparatory work, it cost $7,250,000 — about $2,530 per bishop total or $9 per bishop for each of its 281 days. 

The council fathers’ main achievement can be seen in the 16 documents they adopted by overwhelming majorities. Totaling a little over 103,000 Latin words, these include four “constitutions,” nine “decrees,” and three “declarations.” The constitutions are the most important. They deal with the Church, the Church in the modern world, liturgy and divine revelation. At 23,335 words, the constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), is the longest. 

Ecumenical councils commonly are held in response to pressing questions or crises. The councils of the early centuries faced heresies regarding Christ that denied either his humanity or his divinity. The 16th century Council of Trent was convoked in response to the Protestant Reformation. 

What question or crisis was Vatican Council II supposed to deal with? The answer isn’t immediately clear.  

By the middle years of the 20th century the Catholic Church undoubtedly had some issues, but to most people, including most Catholics, it was stable, strong, united and growing. 

Yet in some high-up circles the possibility of holding another council had been discussed long before Vatican II. To understand why, we need to go back to the council before Vatican II — Vatican Council I. 

The road to the council

The First Vatican Council was convoked by Pope Pius IX. (Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 beatified him — declared him “Blessed” — along with the pope who called Vatican II, John XXIII.) With about 800 bishops attending, Vatican I took place between December 1869 and September 1870. It resulted in solemn “definitions”— declarations that they belong to the Faith of the Church — of two dogmas pertaining to the pope’s authority in teaching and governing: papal infallibility and papal primacy. 

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, with the resulting withdrawal of French troops who had been guarding Rome, forced the suspension of the council, leaving untouched the rest of its agenda, especially the role of bishops. Thus Catholics were left with a view of the Church that emphasized the papacy while leaving out bishops and the rest of the Church. 

The question whether to reopen Vatican I or hold a new council was studied by the Vatican during the pontificates of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958). Two cardinals raised the idea with Pope John XXIII during the 1958 conclave that elected him pope. 

Very different from his austere, cerebral predecessor, the friendly, folksy new pope was wildly popular with the public and the press. But he had more on his mind than simply charming people.  

In the weeks after his election, Pope John researched ecumenical councils and mulled having one.  

On Jan. 25, 1959, during a ceremony at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, he sprang his plan on 17 startled cardinals. 

The plan had three parts: the first-ever synod for the Diocese of Rome (it was held in 1960), a revised Code of Canon Law (eventually published in 1983) and an ecumenical council. All three, he said, would be for “the enlightenment, the edification, and the joy of the Christian people.” 

Not everyone was convinced.  

That included two cardinals who eventually would play major roles at the council, Giacomo Ler-caro of Bologna and Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan, who later would succeed John XXIII as Pope Paul VI. “Rash and impulsive,” Cardinal Lercaro pronounced. “A hornets’ nest,” said Cardinal Montini. 

Despite such reservations, preparations for the council moved ahead. An “ante-preparatory commission” established by Pope John, canvassed the world’s bishops on topics to discuss. Suggestions were all over the lot, but the 2,150 replies and 76.4 percent response rate suggested a high degree of interest.  

When the pope in June 1960 created the “preparatory commission” proper, it had plenty to do. 

Changing theology

A key moment in the preparations was Pope John’s choice of Father Augustin Bea, longtime rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, to head the newly created Secretariat for Christian Unity. 

vatican edict
Pope John XXIII signs the bill convoking the Second Vatican Council Dec. 25, 1961. The council assembled for its first session Oct. 11, 1962. CNS photo

Father — soon, Cardinal — Bea threw himself into the work of making contacts with other Christian bodies and arranging for non-Catholic observers at the council.  

Non-Catholic churchmen soon were trooping to Rome to meet with the pope.  

Among them was the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, whose audience with John XXIII on Dec. 2, 1960, was the first encounter between Rome and Canterbury since the Reformation. 

In some ways, relations with separated Christians were less problematical than relations with elements of the Catholic theological community. History suggests why. 

The reigning theology of the pre-Vatican II Church was the Neo-Thomism that had come to the fore in the wake of the papally encouraged revival of interest in St. Thomas Aquinas in the 19th century. It presented an impressive, resolutely orthodox face to the world. 

Around the turn of the century, nevertheless, something else roiled the waters of Catholic intellectual life.  

A small number of scholars in France, England, Italy and other places sought to introduce new insights from history, Scripture studies and science into the mainstream of Catholic thought, much as others had done decades earlier, with liberal Protestantism the result. In time, these men came to be called Modernists. 

Although their intentions were good at the start, some Modernists eventually came to reject much of the historical content of both the Old and New Testaments, and adopted a psychological account of religious experience according to which faith originates in human need, not God’s revelation, and no religion can rightly be called true in any definitive sense. 

In 1907, Pope St. Pius X condemned Modernism. Its most prominent figures were excommunicated, and rigorous disciplinary measures were adopted. But although the movement was driven underground, it was not destroyed. Modernist ideas re-surfaced around the time of Vatican Council II. 

Symptomatic of that, on the eve of Vatican II the Holy Office (today, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) condemned the writings of priest-paleontologist Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose odd books attempting to baptize evolutionism were published after his death in 1955 and enjoyed a vogue in that heady era. Despite the condemnation, Father Teilhard’s thinking can be seen in the council’s tendency to equate change with progress. 

Meanwhile, the 1930s and 1940s had seen the rise of yet another theological school — the nouvelle theologie (“new theology”) associated with thinkers like Fathers Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner. As Vatican II took shape, these men and their disciples became a major force for change in their capacity as advisors to bishops and members of key commissions. 

Before the council, though, the preparatory work, including the drafting of documents, was largely in the hands of the Roman Curia and the approved Neo-Thomists. This has led to speculation that Pope John and the Curia were at odds. 

But they weren’t. The late Peter Hebblethwaite, a Catholic writer with impeccably liberal credentials and a biographer of John XXIII, says “no wedge can be driven” between the pope and Curia in regard to council preparations. 

“They went hand in hand at every stage. [Pope John] read all the draft texts personally, and annotated them. His notes are usually on minor points or else record simply that he had read them attentively and, sometimes, with joy.” 

The curtain rises

That suggests another question: What kind of council did Pope John want? 

Certainly he didn’t expect it to last long — a single session running a couple of months would suffice, he believed. As for what it should do, the clearest indication, prior to the council itself, is his apostolic constitution formally convoking Vatican II, published on Christmas Day of 1961.  

future pope
Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, attended all four sessions of the council. CNS photo from KNA

John XXIII speaks of three hoped-for results: updating of the Church “while remaining identical in herself,” progress toward Christian unity and service to the world. He writes: 

“To a world which is lost, confused, and anxious under the constant threat of new, frightful conflicts, the forthcoming council must offer a possibility for all men of good will to turn their thoughts and their intentions toward peace, a peace which can and must … come from spiritual and supernatural realities, from human intelligence and conscience enlightened and guided by God.” 

That concern for peace wasn’t boiler plate.  

As Pope John prepared for the council, the cold war was heating up, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union moving toward confrontation.  

On Oct. 12, the day after Vatican II started, President John F. Kennedy was given evidence that the placement in Cuba of Soviet missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons had begun. Pope John would soon play a key role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis by bringing the two sides together. 

In the months before the council, though, preparations for that event and worries about world peace weren’t all that weighed on John XXIII. Given his advanced age, he’d realized from the start that he might not see the conclusion of Vatican II. Lately, though, he’d been experiencing worrisome symptoms, and on Sept. 23, 1962, he got the doctors’ verdict: stomach cancer. He was to die the following June 3. 

But there was no public hint of that as the Second Vatican Council got under way on Oct. 11.It had rained during the night, but the sun shone brightly that morning as some 2,400 bishops moved in procession across the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square and entered the vast basilica.  

Also present, as Pope John had ardently desired, were some 40 non-Catholic observers (the number would eventually grow to 80). An eyewitness described the pope as “radiant with joy” as he bowed to the crowd, gave his blessing and received the people’s greeting. 

After a long ceremony, John XXIII delivered his opening address. Spoken in Latin and lasting 37 minutes, it is one of the most consequential talks ever given by a pope.  

“Mother Church rejoices,” he began, “that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned …” 

The curtain had risen on the Second Vatican Council. Hard work, conflict, disappointment and exultation lay ahead.  

For someone who considers that to be the authentic “spirit of Vatican II,” it is no great stretch to say the curtain hasn’t come down yet. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.  

Pope John XXlll
Key Players
Augustin Bea