Second Vatican Council Meets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spanning two papacies and more than three years, Vatican II produced numerous documents to provide guidance on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world. Disagreements over Vatican II teachings on liturgy and pastoral practice divided Catholics in subsequent decades.

Summary of Event

Pope John XXIII opened the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II) on October 11, 1962. The council had been in the planning stages since 1959. For the three years prior to the convening of the council, Vatican officials had been circulating questionnaires to Roman Catholic bishops and theologians asking them what topics should be discussed during the council. What were the most pressing problems and needs facing the Roman Catholic Church worldwide in the aftermath of World War II and given the growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union? The Second Vatican Council, unlike the First Vatican Council—called specifically to promulgate the doctrine of papal infallibility—was not called in response to any one specific concern. John XXIII, elected as a caretaker pope, perceived that the Catholic Church worldwide was facing a number of simultaneous pressures. The Church, in its institutional structure and methods of operation, was in danger of becoming an irrelevant relic. Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] Roman Catholic Church;Vatican II[Vatican 02] Christianity;Catholic doctrines [kw]Second Vatican Council Meets (Oct. 11, 1962-Dec. 8, 1965) [kw]Vatican Council Meets, Second (Oct. 11, 1962-Dec. 8, 1965) Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] Roman Catholic Church;Vatican II[Vatican 02] Christianity;Catholic doctrines [g]Europe;Oct. 11, 1962-Dec. 8, 1965: Second Vatican Council Meets[07390] [g]Italy;Oct. 11, 1962-Dec. 8, 1965: Second Vatican Council Meets[07390] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Oct. 11, 1962-Dec. 8, 1965: Second Vatican Council Meets[07390] John XXIII Paul VI

John felt that the Church needed to reinvigorate itself in three distinct ways. First, the Catholic Church, still operating in some measure as it had done since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, needed to develop a new model that was less hierarchical and more collegial in terms of shared decision making between the pope and his brother bishops. The Church did not exist solely to perpetuate institutional goals. It needed to reorient itself much more as a missionary Church in the service of the laity in their lived historical context. Second, the Church needed to stop behaving as a religious monopoly, as though all other world religions, including other branches of Christianity, were but defective copies of Catholicism that had value only to the extent that they mirrored Catholic doctrine and practice.

Third, the Church, Roman Catholic Church;and modernity[modernity] steeped in the philosophical and theological framework provided by the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas (1224 or 1225-1274), was finding it increasingly difficult to espouse the official position that Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles writings on evolutionary biology were wrong because they contradicted the Creation account in Genesis. Equally problematic was the Church’s resistance to Sigmund Freud’s Freud, Sigmund theories of psychological development, which did not, according to the Church, offer a coherent explanation of human emotional life and motivation. Albert Einstein’s Einstein, Albert special theory of relativity, published in 1905, seemed to posit a picture of the physical universe in which people were only marginally relevant, and the Church had resisted that theory as well.

John used the Italian word aggiornamento, meaning “renewal” or “bringing up to date,” to describe his hope for the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 with twenty-five hundred bishops participating. Orthodox and Protestant observers were invited to sessions in 1963-1965, as were male representatives of the Catholic laity. Female Catholic representatives were invited in 1964-1965. John died in 1963, and the council continued under the papacy of Paul VI.

In addressing issues internal to the Catholic Church, the bishops addressed their own need to take a much more pastoral, rather than juridical, role. Bishops were to be primarily good shepherds to the people under their care. The entire Church would henceforth be much more open in its outlook, seeking opportunities to spread the Gospel, but the bishops recognized that neither they nor the priests under their jurisdiction could do this alone. Vatican II formally recognized the essential role of lay Catholics as ministers of the Gospel. Prior to the council, the laity’s role had been largely passive. Afterward, the laity was included as active participants in the Church’s mission. In order to strengthen the faith among the laity, the bishops voted to make the sacramental meaning of the Mass much more accessible to the congregation by allowing priests to celebrate Mass in local languages. Not only was Latin no longer required, but laypersons were also to participate much more in assisting the priest during Mass.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, lay Catholics were not encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves. Rather, they were to be instructed in proper scriptural interpretation by the priests. After the council, lay Catholics were encouraged to read widely and deeply in the Scriptures as a means of participating in God’s ongoing revelation to humanity. Lay Catholics were also encouraged to study the history of the Catholic Church in order to appreciate the historical context of scriptural interpretation.

Not just lay Catholics but priests, monks, and nuns were charged with new responsibilities in missionary and evangelization efforts. The desire to imitate Christ was no longer enough to become a priest, monk, or nun. Candidates to sacred orders also had to pass psychological examinations. Much more emphasis was placed on believers developing a personal, emotionally balanced, and healthy relationship with Christ. None of these internal changes came easily. The idea of papal infallibility was moderated so that bishops could make decisions about how best to implement the changes, rather than following a top-down, one-size-fits-all pattern.

As the Catholic Church implemented far-reaching internal changes, it also reoriented itself to face outward to meet the claims of meaning articulated by other religions. It did so not in a confrontational or defensive manner, but with the attitude that other religions could be vehicles for salvation, since God wished all people to be saved and none lost. The Catholic Church began to lay the groundwork for dialogues with bishops and theologians in other Christian denominations, focusing on sacramental similarities and encouraging the restoration of unity among all Christians.

Distancing itself from centuries of theological justification for anti-Semitism, Roman Catholic Church;and Jews[Jews] Vatican II specifically repudiated the notion that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. The Church emphasized that all people, regardless of religious affiliation, were children of God. The Church, therefore, accepted whatever was Godly and holy in all other religions and came to view adherents of those religions as authentic witnesses to God’s actions in human history. Such thinking represented an enormous reversal in centuries of Catholic claims to salvific exclusivity.

The Church also began to face outward toward an increasingly secular world that had made enormous advances in technology in the century since the First Vatican Council in 1870. Rather than ignoring or denigrating technological and scientific advances, the Church determined that the faithful should use education to develop a strong sense of morality. Technological advances were seen as good as long as they were utilized in the service of the Gospel. Although the Apostles may have spread the Gospel by word of mouth, advances in communications then beginning to be made via computers and satellites could be used to promote the missionary impetus of the Gospels. The Catholic Church also took up the issue of human rights and freedom of conscience. Religious freedom, both in public and private, was declared to be a fundamental right. All attempts at religious coercion or suppression were therefore inherently inhumane and unjust.


Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church was a very conservative, hierarchically structured, authoritarian institution, seemingly proud of the claim “the Vatican never does anything for the first time.” Traditions, some of them dating back centuries, were valued over actions and thinking that could be of assistance to people in their concrete historical circumstances. Through Vatican II, however, the Church, as an institution, began to think of itself as a human organization situated in history. Those doctrines and rituals deemed central to the Church’s sacramental mission were permanent and unchanging. Social and administrative functions, however, could be separated from doctrine. Such functions could be changed better to serve the changing needs of the Church, which began to see significant growth in the poorer countries of the world. Pastoral solutions to problems replaced juridical decisions. Affirming the dignity and human rights of all people became more central in papal social teachings. Believers were encouraged to seek the Kingdom of Heaven, in some form, in human society. Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] Roman Catholic Church;Vatican II[Vatican 02] Christianity;Catholic doctrines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbott, W. A., ed. The Documents of Vatican II. Baltimore: America Press, 1966. This volume includes the official English-language translations of all sixteen documents promulgated by Vatican II. Each document is prefaced by a brief introduction and is followed by a response essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flannery, Austin, ed. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-conciliar Documents. Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1975. In addition to English-language translations of all documents issued by Vatican II, each document is accompanied by a decade’s worth of subsidiary instructions explaining how to implement specific decisions made by Vatican II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Greeley, both a Catholic priest and a sociology professor, examines the implementation of decisions from the Second Vatican Council. This book is less about the fights between conservatives and progressives within the Catholic Church and more about the numerous huge social changes in both American society and the American Catholic Church in the 1970’s-1980’s against which Vatican II decisions were set.

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