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Vatican II: 40 years later

A Council Primer


When Pope John XXIII announced on Jan. 25, 1959, that he has going to convene a council of the entire church, he sent the majority of “the people in the pews” (and not a few priests and bishops as well) scurrying for their dictionaries and tomes of church history. What was an ecumenical council? Why were they held? Who got to attend? What did they accomplish?

The election of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in October 1958 to succeed Pius XII had been, action of the Holy Spirit aside, intended by the cardinal electorate to provide an “interim” papacy after Pius XII’s 19-year reign. At the age of 76, Roncalli, as Pope John XXIII, was expected to not rock Peter’s boat too much and do nothing to unduly distress the Vatican’s machinery, which hoped to keep plodding along untouched as it had for centuries. As we know, however, Good Pope John’s decision to call a council fairly set the church on its head. Even the goals of John’s council would be different from anything in the history books: Unlike earlier such ecclesiastical gatherings, this one, for starters, would not hurl anathemas, condemnations and excommunications -- already a major breakthrough.

Despite strong resistance from the Roman curia, John was determined to convene his council, which he described as opening the church’s windows to let in a breath of fresh air. The Second Vatican Council was to launch a much-needed spiritual renewal and updating of the church’s practices. The word the pope used to describe it was aggiornamento, a lively Italian word whose English translation, “updating,” doesn’t really convey its energy adequately.

So John did convene his council, which opened Oct. 11, 1962 -- and the rest, as they say, is history. But before it became history, the Second Vatican Council produced a whole new Catholic lexicon (see Glossary, Page 11); aggiornamento may have been the first Italian word that wasn’t a food product to start rolling off the tongues of Catholics around the world. Add to that terms like “people of God,” collegiality, ecumenism, “the priesthood of believers,” “dogmatic constitution,” vernacular and motu proprio, and it was clear that Vatican II was producing nothing short of a revolution in the Catholic church -- which, of course, is exactly what the rotund, smiling (and now officially Blessed) pontiff had in mind.

The pope’s council

Although there have been numerous councils throughout the church’s history, ecumenical councils are unique in that the pope always presides at them; an ecumenical council, by definition, is the pope’s own council. Anything an ecumenical council decides, any decrees it issues, is binding only when the pope confirms and officially promulgates it.

Even though the world’s bishops are gathered for the council, it is ultimately the pope’s authority that undergirds it. For example, if a pope dies during a council -- as John XXIII did in 1963 after Vatican II’s first session -- it is automatically suspended unless or until another pope reconvenes it. John XXIII convened the council and presided over its first session. The council wasn’t reconvened until nine months later, in September 1963.

Together, the pope and the college of bishops represent the entire church. According to the Code of Canon Law (nos. 337-41), all and only bishops have a deliberative vote. But no number of votes can override the pope’s authority at a council; according to church law, an ecumenical council -- even though the highest exercise of church teaching -- never has authority exceeding that of the pope.

How councils evolved

The Acts of the Apostles records the church’s first official council: the council of Jerusalem in 51 A.D. There the early church, under Peter’s leadership (following his own personal “conversion” experience on the topic), decided that converts to the new Christian faith were not to be obliged to make their entry through Judaism. The council ruled that new Christians did not need to follow Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary laws. Here we have the first written record of church collegiality as the apostles conveyed their decision to the believers in Antioch: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us … ” (Acts 15:28).

By the second century, church documents show that bishops from Africa to Greece were regularly getting together to decide matters of church teaching and pastoral practice in regional meetings, synods and councils. Until the strong centralization of the papacy at the end of the first millennium, many of these regional councils were called at the bishops’ own initiative; in some cases the pope was not even notified, or learned of their respective deliberations when the news finally made its way to Rome, sometime after several years.

The church’s 21 ecumenical councils

Although Pope John’s council was officially called the Second Vatican Council, it was the 21st ecumenical (or “worldwide”) church council. The first eight ecumenical councils were held in the East: two in Nicaea, four in Constantinople, and one each in Ephesus and Chalcedon. The remaining 13 were held in the West. With the tragic split between the churches of the East and West and related doctrinal controversy, the number of accepted councils varied, too. Even today some of the Orthodox churches recognize only the first seven councils -- which discussed and defined many doctrinal points -- as valid; others accept only the first two or three.

In the West, the most popular place for councils was Italy, followed by France as a distant second: Lateran councils I through V and Vatican I and II were held in Rome, and one was held in Florence. Trent, the longest, became a second home to many bishops (and their successors), running as it did in 25 sessions over 18 years! Two councils were held in Lyons, France.

Vatican II’s sessions and players

Compared to Trent’s tempestuous and long history -- it was interrupted by wars, internal politics, unrest among the faithful, and even the plague -- the Second Vatican Council with its mere four sessions seemed on the small side. But what it lacked in duration it made up for in production. The council was held in four sessions, all in St. Peter’s Basilica, under two popes: October-December 1962 under John XXIII, and September-December 1963, September-November 1964 and September-December 1965 under Paul VI. Sixteen major documents were produced: two dogmatic and pastoral constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations.

The largest number of bishops in recorded church history attended one or more of Vatican II’s sessions: a total of 2,860 bishops from all over the world. (Vatican I, in contrast, had 737 bishops in attendance.) Depending on the session, the number of bishops was between 2,000 and 2,500. Several communist countries refused to allow bishops to attend, and some bishops living under repressive regimes were afraid that if they left their countries they would not be allowed back in. As a result, at least 274 bishops could not take part in the council.

In addition to sheer numbers, Vatican II stood out for the fact that it was “worldwide” in reality and not just in name. Europeans dominated the First Vatican Council, and even representatives from mission lands were Europeans. In contrast, many of the council fathers at Vatican II were natives of developing nations, raised in non-European cultures. While Europeans still tipped the balance with over 1,000 bishops attending, Vatican II was the first time a council counted 489 bishops from South America, 404 from North America, 374 from Asia, 84 from Central America and 75 from Oceania.

Vatican II was also unique in its outreach. It marked the first time that a large number of non-Catholics were invited to attend as guests and observers. And the Second Vatican Council was also the first time that women, lay and religious, were invited into the council hall, also as observers.

With bishops bringing along, in many cases, an aide, a translator and a personal peritus, or expert, the total number of council participants topped 3,000. And as the bishops waded deeper into new theological and pastoral territory in successive sessions, the number of their advisors and experts increased as well. While numbering about 200 in the first session, periti more than doubled, to 480, by the council’s end.

The Second Vatican Council officially ended on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, 1965. But as this issue of NCR demonstrates, it is still having a decisive impact on Catholic life after 40 years. And some would say it’s just beginning.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002