Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Vatican II (1962-1965)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

The second Vatican Council is unquestionably the most significant event for the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century.  Called for by Pope John XXIII amidst the social optimism of the 1960s, the Council met in four sessions from October 1962 to December 1965 and constituted a watershed event for Roman Catholic believers.  John XXIII’s desire to update (aggiornamento, in Italian) the Church was carried on in his successor Paul VI, who replaced him in 1963 for the Council’s final sessions (Cunningham, 532).  The Council sought to engage the modern world in a new and more positive fashion, creating tremendous consequences for the life of the Church.  In order to understand the scope and nature of the Council’s influence, it will be helpful to consider Vatican II under three aspects: the new direction taken by the Council, the crisis and turmoil that followed, and the lasting significance and questions regarding the place of Vatican II in the history of Catholic and Christian theology.

2. Works (Selected List)

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, 1963); Inter Mirifica (Decree on Means of Social Communication, 1963); Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1963); Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Churches of the Eastern Rite, 1964); Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism, 1965); Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, 1965); Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on Renewal of Religious Life, 1965); Optatum Totius (Decree on Priestly Training, 1965); Gravissum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education, 1965); Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation to Non-Christian Religions, 1965); Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965); Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on Apostolate of Laity, 1965); Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965); Ad Gentes Divinus (Decree on Mission Activity of the Church, 1965); Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on Ministry of Priests, 1965); Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965)

3. Themes


4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers

A New Direction

Vatican II presented itself as a Council that sought openly and constructively to engage the modern world.  One change brought about by the Council that was immediately noticeable, visible already in its more positive orientation to modern society, was that of style.  In earlier councils, the Church had presented itself with restricted dogmatic or disciplinary language, but Vatican II took a pastoral and irenic approach in its documents (Cunningham, 533).  This change of style was not simply a superficial change of rhetoric.  It signified rather an entirely new way of thinking on behalf of the Church (Dulles, 176).  This more pastoral style coincided with a sharp break with the Church’s previous stance towards the modern world.  In Pope Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors, at the first Vatican Council in 1870, and even as late as the 1950 papal encyclical Humani Generis, the Church had taken a condemnatory and defensive stance toward modernity.  The Council’s decision to positively engage the modern world, therefore, constituted a complete reversal from earlier papal policy (Baum, 159).  The Council also signified a break with neoscholastic theology, which had predominated among Catholic theologians, and which proceeded by tightly argued logical analyses and took the form of precise propositions and definitions.  While prior to the Council all Catholic theologians were trained in this method, theologians working afterwards were given much more conceptual freedom.  Catholic students of theology following the Council were no longer obligated to go to Rome or Catholic seminaries for theological training.  In addition, a number of creative theologians whose work had been held in suspicion before the Council such as Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Hans Küng became highly esteemed after it had convened (Bokenkotter, 399).  Although for some, such as Schillebeeckx and Küng, this freedom from suspicion only proved temporary (cf. Hilkert, 412).

The most immediately significant changes effected by the Council concerned its specific declarations in a number of key areas.  The first of these was the Church’s understanding of itself and its relation to the modern world.  The Council moved away from language of the Church as the perfect society or the kingdom of God on earth and described itself instead as a “sacrament” to the world (Flannery, 350) and as a “pilgrim Church” that is looking forward to its full realization (Flannery, 407-412).  The Church also assumed a great deal of world-responsibility, and far from emphasizing its separation from the secular world spoke of its solidarity with the whole of humanity (Flannery, 904).

A second change was the Council’s admission of some degree of relativity in Catholic doctrine and its more positive appraisal both of non-Catholic Christians and of believers in non-Christian religions.  The Council recognized reflections of religious truth outside of the Catholic Church and opened up new opportunities for ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue (Flannery, 739).  It also offered a significant condemnation of all anti-Semitism in the Church (Flannery, 741).

A third significant change was the Council’s reformulation of the liturgy.  This change was to exercise an immediate and powerful impact on the lives of Catholic believers.  The old liturgy that was thought to be unchangeable by many worshippers was replaced by a new liturgy in which the priest faced the congregation and said the Mass not in Latin but in the people’s vernacular language (cf. Flannery, 13). 

A fourth influential change was the newly understood role of the laity in the Church.  Laity were encouraged to actively participate in the liturgy (Flannery, 8), given responsibility to engage the world politically and economically in pursuit of justice and the common good (Flannery, 390-91; 944; 981-84), and were even obliged to make their own opinions known (Flannery, 394). 

A final and tremendously important change in the Council’s new emphasis was its affirmation of human dignity and religious liberty.  The Council declared that no one should be coerced into affirming any religious position but that persons should be free to act according to their own free conscience (Flannery, 801), and it even recognized some of the Catholic Church’s own culpability in this regard (Flannery, 809).

All of these changes had the cumulative effect of drastically changing the Church’s face. In thus letting down what had seemed to many to be its unchangeable façade, the Church opened up the opportunity for radically restructuring and reconsidering the Church’s relationship to the world, to other religions, and to science, as well as its understanding of itself.   And in this recognition of “a new age of human history” (Flannery, 959) it signaled what many took to be a new era for the Church.  The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, for example, saw the Council as having even more importance than those participating realized or intended, and said that in Vatican II the Catholic Church had made a “qualitative leap” towards becoming a “world-church” (Rahner, 80).  Although it has always been a world-church in potential, he argued, previously the Church had been too culturally tied to Europe and North America; its relation to the rest of the world was more like that of an “export firm” (Rahner, 78).  Vatican II, however, was the first time that the world-church had actually begun to exist in history (Rahner, 91).  It therefore constituted what he called the transition to the third major time period in the history of the Church.  The Church’s first transition occurred at its very beginnings when it moved from being Judeo-Christianity to becoming Gentile-Christianity and took on Hellenic and later European thought forms, with all the radical restructuring of the faith that such a move involved.  The present time, Rahner argued, constitutes the second major transition and involves a new challenge of restructuring that must likewise be met with “Pauline boldness” (Rahner, 86).  “At this point,” he wrote, “a frontier has been crossed behind which it will never again be possible to return, even to the slightest degree” (Rahner, 94). 

For Rahner and for many others, then, the Church’s action in Vatican II did not simply represent reform or even merely significant progress.  Rather, it was the beginning of a new way of being for the Church which was to have tremendous implications for its continued existence.  Rahner’s response to the Council is notable for his appraisal of its significance as well as for his optimism about the possibilities created by the council’s work.  Despite this optimism and euphoria about the Church’s new role, however, which was shared by many, the Council’s effects were also to create a great deal of uncertainty and instability within the Church, and would quickly bring it into a state of crisis.

Crisis and Turmoil

The decade following the Council’s close in 1965 was one of tremendous crisis for many Catholic believers, who were not intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally prepared for the change (Bokenkotter, 391).  The historical mentality alone that the Council brought to its understanding of the Church had reversed a conception among many Catholics that the Church’s worship and doctrines were immune to change (O’Malley, 15).  The Council’s changes therefore left some with a great feeling of loss and uncertainty.  The Mass had been reshaped.  Many of the old rites had either been simplified or discarded altogether (Bokenkotter, 392), and there began both a spectacular decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious orders and a movement among existing priests to leave the religious life.  The total number of seminarians from 1962 to 1974, for example, dropped by 31.4%, and while the worldwide Catholic population increased from 530 million to 659 million in the years from 1960 to 1974, the number of priests did not increase at all.  In fact, in the short time span from 1966 to 1972 approximately eight thousand left the public ministry.  This decline can be partly explained by frustration with clerical celibacy and a desire among many priests to marry, but the more fundamental reason for this change concerned the very question of the priest’s identity.  In the wake of the Council, there was no clear answer to the question of what it really meant to be a priest in contemporary society (Bokenkotter, 402-03).

Coinciding with this broad sense of turmoil were increasing trends that called into question the moral precepts and traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church.  In the moral sphere, for example, many in the priesthood began expressing a desire to change the law of celibacy (Bokenkotter, 403).  And with regard to doctrine, more and more theologians began to take advantage of historical and critical studies to present novel views that with increasing frequency contradicted traditional Catholic teaching.  The 1966 Dutch New Catechism took such an approach, giving more symbolic expression to previously held teachings such as papal infallibility and the virgin birth (Bokenkotter, 400-01). 

These trends, of course, took their motivation directly from the Council.  Prior to Vatican II, the Church had stressed absolute obedience to its moral teachings; its doctrines were regarded as more or less perfect expressions of divine truths.  With the Council’s recognition of legitimate plurality and complementarity of theological expression and its teaching on the “hierarchy of truths” (Flannery, 462), however, it had opened the door to greater doctrinal relativity.       

Such differing interpretations of the Council’s intentions led increasingly to conflict between papal authories and those among the bishops and laity who desired more progress.  Already in 1968 Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned abortion and the use of unnatural methods of contraception, met with strong and widespread opposition.  And despite the abolition of the Index of Forbidden Books in 1965, the Roman authorities once again began bringing pressure down upon individual theologians, as it did with Hans Küng, who emphasized the historical contingency of the Church’s teachings and advocated discarding the Church’s belief in papal infallibility (Bokenkotter, 394-402).

The years following the Council, therefore, witnessed an increasing divide between more progressive elements in the Church, who resented the continued heavy-handed and authoritarian workings of the Roman Curia, and conservative theologians concerned to preserve the Church’s teaching (Schreiter, 161).  While some Catholics were eager to implement changes, others felt that the zeal for reform and renewal had already gone too far.  In the 1980’s, following John Paul II’s elevation to the papacy in 1978, the magisterium began to espouse a more conservative view of the Council’s intentions.  And in 1985, a synod was convened with the intention of giving an official interpretation to the Council’s intentions and teachings, leading to the production of a new catechism (Schreiter, 169). 

Despite the synod’s work, however, polarization among Catholics over the correct interpretation and implementation of the Council’s reforms has persisted.  Some see the Council as having been naively optimistic and having spoken to a situation that no longer exists. While affirming the Council’s intention, they see a need to take a sharper stance against the world in order to again arouse a sense of the Catholic Church’s mystery and to call people back to piety (Dulles, 191).  Others take a more humanistic and communitarian outlook and see great progress following the Council, attributing the difficulties to more conservative parties who have not sufficiently carried through the Council’s reforms (Dulles, 192).  In some parts of the Church, this debate between progressive and conservative interests has become quite acrimonious.  The initial euphoria surrounding the Council, then, has given way to a more pessimistic and somber view (Schreiter, 169-70), and the question of the proper interpretation and implementation of the Council’s reforms remains a difficult issue.

Continued Influence and Lasting Questions    

Regardless of one’s interpretation of the Council, all parties agree with Rahner’s assessment that in Vatican II “something new has happened, something irreversible, something that remains” (Rahner, 102).  And despite the difficulties surrounding its reception, the Council has undeniably also produced a number of positive effects that contribute to its stated purpose of seeking unity and solidarity.  The Church has made some progress on the ecumenical front, for instance, engaging in significant dialogues with Lutheran, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches (Bokenkotter, 407).  The Council has also contributed to more positive relations with other religions, as symbolized by John Paul II paying homage to Ghandi as a man of true religious inspiration and by his meetings with the Dalai Lama (Hastings, 132-33).  And following the new emphasis on the role of the laity in the life and mission of the Church, many Catholics have become more deeply engaged in problems of justice and peace in the world at large (O’Malley, 17).  In orienting itself more positively to the world and to critical study, the Council has also, though not always according to its intentions, occasioned a more hospitable environment for the work of important and creative Catholic theologians whose styles and concerns differ from the predominant strains of the Church’s teaching.  It therefore opened space for the work of theologians such as de Lubac, Congar, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.  In addition, though, other theologians have undertaken work in important areas that have brought them into conflict with the teaching of the magisterium, as for example in the feminist theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether or in the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez.     

Despite the Council’s positive attempts to engage the modern world, then, the leadership of the Church must still address a number of important issues.  It will have to address rising concerns, for example, regarding its position on celibacy and the priesthood, the role of women in ministry, homosexuality, and the relation between Church and state.  Moreover, and more fundamentally, the Church must continue to address itself to the world’s new and changing context (Schreiter, 170).  While the Council’s optimism in coming to terms with modernity coincided largely with the optimism of the 1960s, the decades that followed brought wide-ranging cultural and intellectual changes (Hastings, 457).  The increasing globalization brought about by communications technology and postmodernism’s more somber view of the world present a different situation for the Church to engage (Schreiter, 170). 

Whatever one’s appraisal of the way in which the Council has influenced the Catholic Church, therefore, one must agree with Adrian Hastings that:

The Council was so immensely influential upon every side of the life of the Church that a history of the Church in this period can be little other than an account of the way the Council has been understood, implemented, built upon, or resisted (Hastings, i).

It is also clear that with regard to the Council a number of lasting questions remain, both for the Catholic Church itself and for the continuing theological and religious dialogue outside of Catholicism.  Will the Catholic Church be able to maintain its identity as it opens itself in ever-greater sympathy to an already changed world?  What will be the Council’s enduring contributions to theological and inter-religious study outside of Roman Catholicism?  Will it, following Rahner’s appraisal, make the necessary transition to become a world-church?  These questions, which remain for the time being unanswered, must depend upon how the Catholic Church implements and interprets the Council’s reforms in the times ahead.

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Alberigo, Giuseppe, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Joseph A. Komonchak, eds. 1987. The Reception of Vatican II.  Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press.

Bokenkotter, Thomas. 1977. A Concise History of the Catholic Church.  Garden City: Double Day and Company.

Cunningham, Lawrence. 2003. “Vatican II.” In  New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology.  Edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 531-535.

Dulles, Avery. 1988. The Reshaping of Catholicism.  San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Flannery, Austin, ed. 1998. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company.

Hastings, Adrian, ed. 1991. Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Hilkert, Mary Catherine. 1996. “Edward Schillebeeckx.” In  A New Handbook of Christian Theologians.  Edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 411-418.

Komonchak, Joseph A., ed. 1995. History of Vatican II.  Maryknoll: Orbis.

O’Malley, John. 1989. Tradition and Transition. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.

Rahner, Karl. 1981. Theological Investigations XX: Concern for the Church.  Translated by Edward Quinn.  New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.   

Schreiter, Robert J.  1999. “The Impact of Vatican II.”  The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview.  Edited by Gregory Baum.  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 158-172.

7. Internet Resources

Documents of the Second Vatican Council

“Vatican II - Voice of the Church,” a website offering views on the Council

“Vatican II: 40 years later,” special issue of National Catholic Reporter October 4, 2002

“Second Vatican Council,” article on Wikipedia

8. Related Topics

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

Pius IX (1861-1918)

Roman Catholic Modernism

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1959)

Karl Rahner (1904-1984)

Bernard J. F. Lonergan (1904-1984)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Kevin M. Vander Schel (2005).


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