Starting with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 the Catholic Church established a tradition of ecumenical Council meetings to help decide on and shape the future of the Church. The most recent Council, called Vatican II, is considered to be both the largest ever in scope and also the most ground breaking in the amount of change it yielded. The changes in doctrine, dogma and procedure they enacted had major effects both inside and outside the Catholic Church and continue to today.
Before the Vatican II the Catholic Church was an aging dinosaur, still crippled by the Reformation and unable to relate to contemporary man. It emerged from it a modern Church, tolerant and accepting of other religions, accessible to the laity and ready to grip with this age of reason over faith. I contend that the Vatican II council, while not being perfect or perhaps as progressive as it should have been, was just what the Catholic Church needed if it intended to maintain its status as one of the largest denominations on Earth.
This paper is divided up in to two portions, the first a historical account of events of the council and the second an analysis of the most important of the 16 documents approved by the assembled Fathers and their effect on the Catholic Church.
On January 25th 1959, Pope John XXIII announced that he was assembling what was to be the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. He proclaimed to his closest advisors that the purpose of the council would be "to proclaim the truth, bring Christians closer to the faith, and contribute at the same time to peace and prosperity on earth." Pope John immediately made it very clear that his papal reign, which up until this point was considered rather inconsequential, was going to make a difference.
Councils of the church are called to contemplate and reevaluate the church's position on matters such as church administration, doctrine and discipline. An ecumenical council is a worldwide council that can only be called by the pope. All bishops and other high-ranking members of the whole church are to be present. This was to be the first major council in the Church since the original Vatican Council that was convened in 1869-1870.
Immediately after the pope's order the Vatican's bureaucracy of religious leaders, which is known as the Curia, sprung into action. Their preparatory commissions produced seventy proposals that encompassed over 2000 pages. That alone doubled the amount of documents created by the previous twenty councils combined. Many were concerned that when the council officially began it would be so weighed down by the breadth of its task that the bishops would be unable to make changes significant to the contemporary man. That concern would soon be dispelled.
In recent times, the Curia had grown very confident in their authority over the rest of the Church's bishops since the decree of papal infallibility made at the 1st Vatican Council. They expected the rest of the church's leaders to arrive in Rome and essentially "rubber stamp" their decisions. However, despite the Curia's attempts to keep it hidden there was a great deal of discontent in the church. That was illustrated by the thousands of submittals that were sent to the church for possible inclusion in the council.
On the first day of meetings during the first session in October 11th 1962 it became clear that real introspection would be inevitable and that the Curia would not be placidly followed. Cardinal Lieneat of France and Cardinal Frings of Germany took the first step by successful challenging the pre-selection of the members of the ten committees that would be in control the council voice. Once that happened, the assembled leaders and the world at-large knew that this would be more than a "rubber stamp" council.
That first session lasted until December 8th and did not end with any...
Basset, Bernard. Preist in the piazza. Goal line tribute to a council, with illustrations by Penelope Harter. Fresno: Academy Guild Press, 1963.
Berkouwer, G.C. The Second Vatican Council and the new Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965
Caporale, Rock. Vatican II: Last of the councils. Balitmore: Helicon, 1964.
Catholic Church: Pope John XXIII. Apostolic letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: on the 25 anniversay of the promulgation of the conciliar Constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium" on the Sacred Liturgy. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1988.
MacEoin, Gary. What Happened at Rome? The Council and Its Implications for the Modern World. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Theological Highlights of Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press, 1967.
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