Second Vatican Council and NOSTRA AETATE

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, commonly known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. The Council, through the Holy See, was formally opened under the pontificate of John XXIII on 11 October 1962, and was closed under Paul VI on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December 1965.

Several changes resulted from the Council, including the renewal of consecrated life with a revised charism, ecumenical efforts with other Christian denominations, interfaith dialogue with other religions, and the universal call to holiness, which according to Paul VI was “the most characteristic and ultimate purpose of the teachings of the Council”.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the most important and essential message of the council was “the Paschal Mystery as the center of what it is to be Christian and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons”. Other changes that followed the council included the widespread use of vernacular languages in the Mass instead of Latin, the allowance of communion under both kinds for the laity, the subtle disuse of ornate clerical regalia, the revision of Eucharistic (liturgical) prayers, the abbreviation of the liturgical calendar, the ability to celebrate the Mass versus populum (with the officiant facing the congregation), as well as ad orientem (facing the “East” and the Crucifix), and modern aesthetic changes encompassing contemporary Catholic liturgical music and artwork. With many of these changes resonating with the perspectives of other Christian denominations who sent observers to the Second Vatican Council, it was an ecumenical “milestone for Catholics, Protestants, [and] the Orthodox”. These changes, while praised by many faithful Catholics, remain divisive among those identifying as traditionalist Catholics. Of those who took part in the Council’s opening session, four have become popes: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding John XXIII took the name Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became John Paul II; and Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who became Benedict XVI.

In the 1950s, theological and biblical studies in the Catholic Church had begun to sway away from Neo-Scholasticism and biblical literalism, which a reaction to Catholic modernism had enforced since the First Vatican Council. This shift could be seen in theologians such as Karl Rahner and John Courtney Murray, who, following John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, looked to integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ, as well as in others such as Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger who looked to an accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers as a source of renewal (ressourcement).

At the same time, the world’s bishops faced challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Some of these bishops sought new ways of addressing those challenges. The First Vatican council had been held nearly a century before, but had been cut short in 1870 when the Italian Army entered the city of Rome at the end of Italian unification. As a result, only deliberations on the role of the papacy and the congruent relationship of faith and reason were completed, with the role of the bishops and laity in the Church left unaddressed.

John XXIII gave notice of his intention to convene the council on 25 January 1959, less than three months after his election in October 1958. This sudden announcement, which caught the Curia by surprise, caused little initial official comment from Church insiders. Reaction to the announcement was widespread and largely positive from both religious and secular leaders outside the Catholic Church, and the council was formally summoned by the apostolic constitution Humanae Salutis on 25 December 1961. In various discussions before the council convened, John XXIII said that it was time to “open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air”. He invited other Christians outside the Catholic Church to send observers to the Council. Acceptances came from both the Eastern Orthodox Church and Protestant denominations as internal observers, but these observers did not cast votes in the approbation of the conciliar documents.

He had tested the idea only ten days before with one of them, his Cardinal Secretary of State Domenico Tardini, who gave enthusiastic support to the idea. Although the pope later said the idea came to him in a flash in his conversation with Tardini, two cardinals had earlier attempted to interest him in the idea. They were two of the most conservative, Ernesto Ruffini and Alfredo Ottaviani, who had already in 1948 proposed the idea to Pius XII and who put it before John XXIII on 27 October 1958.

Actual preparations for the council took more than two years, and included work from 10 specialised commissions, people for mass media and Christian Unity, and a Central Preparatory Commission with 120 members for overall coordination, composed mostly of members of the Roman Curia. At Vatican I, 737 attended, mostly from Europe. Attendance at Vatican II varied in later sessions from 2,100 to over 2,300. In addition, a varying number of periti (“experts”) were available for theological consultation—a group that turned out to have a major influence as the council went forward. Seventeen Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations sent observers. More than three dozen representatives of other Christian communities were present at the opening session, and the number grew to nearly 100 by the end of the 4th council Sessions.


John XXIII opened the council on 11 October 1962 in a public session at St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City and read the declaration Gaudet Mater Ecclesia before the council Fathers.

What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else. (Roncalli, Angelo Giuseppe, “Opening address”, Council, Rome, IT.)

The first working session of the council was on 13 October 1962. That day’s agenda included the election of members of the ten conciliar commissions. Each commission would have sixteen elected and eight appointed members, and they were expected to do most of the work of the Council. It had been expected that the members of the preparatory commissions, where the Curia was heavily represented, would be confirmed as the majorities on the conciliar commissions. But senior French Cardinal Achille Liénart addressed the Council, saying that the bishops could not intelligently vote for strangers. He asked that the vote be postponed to give all the bishops a chance to draw up their own lists. German Cardinal Josef Frings seconded that proposal, and the vote was postponed. The first meeting of the council adjourned after only fifteen minutes.


A contemporary Mass in modern practice, as versus populum became the common posture and gesture practised after the council. The priest faces the congregation, while vestments and artwork are less ornate.

The bishops met to discuss the membership of the commissions, along with other issues, both in national and regional groups, as well as in gatherings that were more informal. The original schemata (Latin for drafts) from the preparatory sessions, drawn up by Sebastiaan Tromp, the secretary of the Preparatory Theological Commission, were rejected by an alliance of liberal-leaning “Rhineland” clerics and new ones were created. When the council met on 16 October 1962, a new slate of commission members was presented and approved by the Council. One important change was a significant increase in membership from Central and Northern Europe, beyond countries such as Spain or Italy. More than 100 bishops from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were Dutch or Belgian and tended to associate with the bishops from those countries. These groups were led by Cardinals Bernardus Johannes Alfrink of the Netherlands and Leo Suenens of Belgium.

Eleven commissions and three secretariats were established, with their respective presidents:

  • De doctrina fidei et morum (Commission on the Doctrine of Faith and Morals), Alfredo Ottaviani;
  • De episcopis et dioecesium regimine (Commission on Bishops and the Government of Dioceses), Paolo Marella;
  • De ecclesiis orientalibus (Commission on the Eastern Churches), Amleto Giovanni Cicognani;
  • De sacramentorum disciplina (Commission on the Discipline of the Sacraments), Benedetto Aloisi Masella;
  • De disciplina cleri et populi christiani (Commission for the Discipline of the Clergy and the Christian People), Pietro Ciriaci;
  • De religiosis (Commission for Religious), Ildebrando Antoniutti;
  • De sacra liturgia (Commission on the Sacred Liturgy), Arcadio Larraona;
  • De missionibus (Commission for the Missions), Gregorio Pietro XV Agagianian;
  • De seminariis, de studiis, et de educatione catholica (Commission on Seminaries, Studies, and Catholic Schools), Giuseppe Pizzardo;
  • De fidelium apostolatu and De scriptis prelo edendis et de spectaculis moderandis (Commission for the Lay Apostolate, the Press, and the Moderation of Shows), Fernando Cento;
  • Technical and Organizational Commission, Gustavo Testa;
  • Ad christianorum unitatem fovendam (Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity), Augustin Bea;
  • Administrative Secretariat, Alberto di Jorio.


After adjournment on 8 December, work began on preparations for the sessions scheduled for 1963. These preparations, however, were halted upon the death of John XXIII on 3 June 1963, since a Catholic ecumenical council is automatically interrupted and suspended upon the death of the pope who convened it, until the next pope orders the council to be continued or dissolved. Paul VI was elected on 21 June 1963 and immediately announced that the council would continue.

Second period: 1963

In the months prior to the second session, Paul VI worked to correct some of the problems of organization and procedure that had been discovered during the first session. The changes included inviting additional lay Catholic and non-Catholic observers, reducing the number of proposed schemata to seventeen (which were made more general, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the Council) and later eliminating the requirement of secrecy surrounding general sessions.

Paul’s opening address on 29 September 1963 stressed the pastoral nature of the Council, and set out four purposes for it:

  • to define more fully the nature of the Church and the role of the bishop;
  • to renew the Church;
  • to restore unity among all Christians, including seeking pardon for Catholic contributions to separation;
  • and to start a dialogue with the contemporary world.

During this second session, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the decree on social communication, Inter mirifica. Work went forward with the schemata on the Church, bishops and dioceses, and on ecumenism.

It was in this session that a revision of the rite of the consecration of virgins that was found in the Roman Pontifical was requested; the revised Rite was approved by Paul and published in 1970.

On 8 November 1963, Josef Frings criticized the Holy Office, and drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Ottaviani, in one of the most dramatic exchanges of the Council. (Cardinal Frings’ theological adviser was the young Joseph Ratzinger, who would later as a Cardinal head the same department of the Holy See, and from 2005–13 reign as Benedict XVI). The second session ended on 4 December.

Third period: 1964

In the time between the second and third sessions, the proposed schemata were further revised on the basis of comments from the council Fathers. A number of topics were reduced to statements of fundamental propositions that could gain approval during the third session, with postconciliar commissions handling implementation of these measures.

At the end of the second session, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Belgium had asked the other bishops: “Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?”, referring to women. In response, 15 women were appointed as auditors in September 1964. Eventually 23 women were auditors at the Second Vatican Council, including 10 women religious. The auditors had no official role in the deliberations, although they attended the meetings of subcommittees working on council documents, particularly texts that dealt with the laity. They also met together on a weekly basis to read draft documents and to comment on them.

During the third session, which began on 14 September 1964, the council fathers worked through a large volume of proposals. There “were approved and promulgated by the Pope” schemata on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio); the official view on Protestant and Eastern Orthodox “separated brethren”; the Eastern Rite churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum); and the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen gentium).

Schemata on the life and ministry of priests and the missionary activity of the Church were rejected and sent back to commissions for complete rewriting. Work continued on the remaining schemata, in particular those on the Church in the modern world and on religious freedom. There was controversy over revisions of the decree on religious freedom and the failure to vote on it during the third session, but Paul promised that this schema would be the first to be reviewed in the next session.

Paul closed the third session on 21 November by announcing a change in the Eucharistic fast and formally reaffirming Mary as “Mother of the Church”. While some called for more dogmas about Mary, in a 2 February 1965 speech Paul VI referred to the “Christocentric and Church-centered direction which the council intends to give to our doctrine and devotion to our Lady”.

Fourth period: 1965

Going into the fourth session, Paul VI and most of the bishops wanted it to be the final one. Cardinal Ritter observed that, “We were stalled by the delaying tactics of a very small minority” in the Curia who were more industrious in communicating with the pope than was the more progressive majority. Eleven schemata remained unfinished at the end of the third session, and commissions worked to give them their final form. Schema 13, on the Church in the modern world, was revised by a commission that worked with the assistance of laypersons.

Paul VI opened the last session of the council on 14 September 1965 and on the following day promulgated the motu proprio establishing the Synod of Bishops. This more permanent structure was intended to preserve close cooperation of the bishops with the pope after the Council.

The first business of the fourth session was the consideration of the decree on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, one of the more controversial of the conciliar documents that passed on 21 September by a vote of 1,997 for to 224 against. The principal work of the other part of the session was work on three documents, all of which were approved by the council Fathers. The lengthened and revised pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, was followed by decrees on missionary activity, Ad gentes, and on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum ordinis.

The council also gave final approval to other documents that had been considered in earlier sessions. These included the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum) and the decrees on the pastoral office of bishops (Christus Dominus), on the life of persons in religious orders (expanded and modified from earlier sessions, finally titled Perfectae caritatis), on education for the priesthood (Optatam totius), on Christian education (Gravissimum educationis), and on the role of the laity (Apostolicam actuositatem).

One of the more controversial documents was Nostra aetate, which stated that the Jews of the time of Christ, taken indiscriminately, and all Jews today are no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God. …The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews.

A major event of the final days of the council was the act of Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of a joint expression of regret for many of the past actions that had led up to the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches.

“The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the Council” (Paul VI., address, 7 December). On 8 December, the council was formally closed, with the bishops professing their obedience to the Council’s decrees. To help carry forward the work of the Council, Paul:

  • had earlier formed a Papal Commission for the Media of Social Communication to assist bishops with the pastoral use of these media;
  • declared a jubilee from 1 January to 26 May 1966 (later extended to 8 December 1966) to urge all Catholics to study and accept the decisions of the council and apply them in spiritual renewal;
  • changed in 1965 the title and procedures of the Holy Office, giving it the name of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as the titles and competences of other departments of the Roman curia;
  • made permanent the secretariates for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers.

Documents of the Council

The abolition of Friday of Sorrows of the Virgin Mary is an example of changes in the Liturgical Calendar after the Council. The Virgin of Hope of Macarena, Spain.

During the Second Vatican Council the bishops produced four major “constitutions” and twelve other documents.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

The first document passed by the council was Sacrosanctum Concilium (“Most Sacred Council”) on the church’s liturgy. Benedict XVI explained that an essential idea of the council itself is the “Paschal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) as the center of what it is to be Christian and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons, expressed in Eastertide and on Sunday which is always the day of the Resurrection.” Thus, the liturgy, especially the Eucharist which makes the Paschal Mystery present, is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”

The matter that had the most immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics was the revision of the liturgy. The central idea was that there ought to be lay participation in the liturgy which means they “take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” (SC 11). Since the mid-1960s, permission has been granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages. It has been emphasized that the language used should be known to the gathered people. The amount of Scripture read during Mass was greatly expanded, through different annual cycles of readings. The revised version of the Latin text of the Mass remains the authoritative text on which translations are based. The invitation for more active, conscious participation of the laity through Mass in the vernacular did not stop with the decree on the liturgy. It was taken up by the later documents of the council that called for a more active participation of the laity in the life of the Church, a turn away from clericalism toward a new age of the laity.

Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium (“Light of the Nations”) gave direction to several of the documents that followed it, including those on Ecumenism, on Non-Christian Religions, on Religious Freedom, and on The Church in the Modern World (see below). A most contentious conclusion that seems to follow from the Bishops’ teaching in the decree is that while “in some sense other Christian communities are institutionally defective,” these communities can “in some cases be more effective as vehicles of grace.” Belgian Bishop Emil de Smedt, commenting on institutional defects that had crept into the Catholic church, “contrasted the hierarchical model of the church that embodied the triad of ‘clericalism, legalism, and triumphalism’ with one that emphasized the ‘people of God’, filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and radically equal in grace,” that was extolled in Lumen Gentium. According to Paul VI, “the most characteristic and ultimate purpose of the teachings of the Council” is the universal call to holiness. John Paul II calls this “an intrinsic and essential aspect of [the council Fathers’] teaching on the Church”, where “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen gentium, 40). Francis, in his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium (17) which laid out the programmatic for his pontificate, said that “on the basis of the teaching of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium” he would discuss the entire People of God which evangelizes, missionary outreach, the inclusion of the poor in society, and peace and dialogue within society. Francis has also followed the call of the council for a more collegial style of leadership, through synods of bishops and through his personal use of a worldwide advisory council of eight cardinals. The Second Vatican Council encouraged the scriptural reading of the Bible rather than relying solely on devotional writings, booklets and the lives of the Catholic saints, as had the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

The Council’s document Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”) states the principle active in the other council documents that “The study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology”. It is said of Dei Verbum that “arguably it is the most seminal of all the conciliar documents,” with the fruits of a return to the Bible as the foundation of Christian life and teaching, evident in the other council documents. Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI, said of the emphasis on the Bible in the council that prior to Vatican II the theology manuals continued to confuse “propositions about revelation with the content of revelation. It represented not abiding truths of faith, but rather the peculiar characteristics of post-Reformation polemic.” In spite of the guarded approval of biblical scholarship under Pius XII, scholars suspected of Modernism were silenced right up to Vatican II. The council brought a definitive end to the Counter-Reformation and, in a spirit of aggiornamento, reached back “behind St. Thomas himself and the Fathers, to the biblical theology which governs the first two chapters of the Constitution on the Church.” “The documents of the Second Vatican Council are shot through with the language of the Bible. …The church’s historical journey away from its earlier focus upon these sources was reversed at Vatican II.” For instance, the Council’s document on the liturgy called for a broader use of liturgical texts, which would now be in the vernacular, along with more enlightened preaching on the Bible explaining “the love affair between God and humankind”. The translation of liturgical texts into vernacular languages, the allowance of communion under both kinds for the laity, and the expansion of Scripture readings during the Mass was resonant with the sensibilities of other Christian denominations, thus making the Second Vatican Council “a milestone for Catholic, Protestants, [and] the Orthodox”.

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

This document, named for its first words Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), built on Lumen Gentium’s understanding of the Church as the “pilgrim people of God” and as “communion”, aware of the long history of the Church’s teaching and in touch with what it calls the “signs of the times”. It reflects the understanding that Baptism confers on all the task that Jesus entrusted to the Church, to be on mission to the world in ways that the present age can understand, in cooperation with the ongoing work of the Spirit. And for those who “draw a distinction between non-negotiable teachings on human sexuality and negotiable teachings on social justice, Gaudium et Spes is an insuperable obstacle and the pontificate of Francis is making that obvious for all with eyes to see.”

Other documents of the Council

Opening declaration – Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother Church Rejoices”) was the opening declaration of the Second Vatican Council, delivered by John XXIII on 11 October 1962 before the bishops and representatives of 86 governments or international groups. He criticizes the “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster” for the church or world. He speaks of the advantage of separation of Church and state but also the challenge to integrate faith with public life. The Church “meets today’s needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning,” by reformulating ancient doctrine for pastoral effectiveness. Also, the Church is “moved by mercy and goodness towards her separated children.” John XXIII before his papacy had proven his gifts as a papal diplomat and as Apostolic Nuncio to France.

On the Means of Social Communication – The decree Inter mirifica (“Among the wonderful”, 1963) addresses issues concerning the press, cinema, television, and other media of communication.

Ecumenism – The decree Unitatis redintegratio (“Reintegration of Unity”, 1964) opens with the statement: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Of the Eastern Catholic Churches – The decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum (“Of the Eastern Churches”, 1964) recognizes the right of Eastern Catholics in communion with the Holy See to keep their distinct liturgical practices and avoid Latinisation. It encourages them to “take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.”

Mission Activity – The decree Ad gentes (“To the Nations”, 1965) treats evangelization as the fundamental mission of the Catholic Church, “to bring good news to the poor.” It includes sections on training missionaries and on forming communities.

The Apostolate of the Laity – The decree Apostolicam actuositatem (“Apostolic Activity”, 1965) declares that the apostolate of the laity is “not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel”, in every field of life, together or through various groups, with respectful cooperation with the Church’s hierarchy.

The Pastoral Office of Bishops – The decree Christus Dominus (“Christ the Lord”, 1965) places renewed emphasis on collegiality and on strong conferences of bishops, while respecting the papacy.pre-Vatican II habit

On Religious Freedom – The declaration Dignitatis humanae (“Of the Dignity of the Human Person”, 1965) is “on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious”.

Non-Christian Religions – The declaration Nostra aetate (“In our time”, 1965) reflects that people are being drawn closer together in our time. The Church “regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” And Jews today “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God” for what happened to Jesus.

The Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life – The decree Perfectae Caritatis (“Of perfect charity”, 1965) calls for “adaptation and renewal of the religious life [that] includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.”

On the Ministry and Life of Priests – The decree Presbyterorum ordinis (“The order of priests”, 1965) describes priests as “father and teacher” but also “brothers among brothers with all those who have been reborn at the baptismal font.” Priests must “promote the dignity” of the laity, “willingly listen” to them, acknowledge and diligently foster “exalted charisms of the laity”, and “entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action.” Also, the human and spiritual needs of priests are discussed in detail.

On Priestly Training – The decree Optatam totius (“Desired [renewal] of the whole”, 1965).

On Christian Education – The declaration Gravissimum educationis (“Extremely important [time] of education”, 1965).

Closing Statement – On 12 January 1966, a month after the close of the Council, Paul VI wrote the letter Udienze Generale on how the council was to be interpreted.

Objections to the Council

The questioning of the nature of and even validity of the Second Vatican Council continues to be a contending point of rejection and conflict among various religious communities, some of which are not in communion with the Catholic Church. In particular, two schools of thought may be discerned:

  • Various Traditionalist Catholics, who claim that the modernising reforms that resulted both directly or indirectly from the council consequently brought detrimental effects, heretical acts, and indifference to the customs, beliefs, and pious practices of the Church before 1962. In addition, they say there is a doctrinal contradiction between the council and earlier papal statements regarding faith, morals and doctrine declared prior to the council itself. Furthermore, they claim that the council decentralised the previous notion of the Catholic Church’s supremacy over other religions while demoralising its longstanding pious practices of religiosity. They assert that, since there were no dogmatic proclamations defined within the documents of the Council, such documents are not infallible and therefore not canonically binding for faithful Catholics, most notably when such concilliar documents give way, as they say, to the loose implementation of longstanding Catholic doctrines that were previously sanctioned and upheld by former Popes prior to 1962. In light of this, most Traditionalist Catholics will exclusively adhere to the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
  • Sedevacantists go beyond this in asserting that, after breaking with Catholic tradition and espousing heresy, present and future popes cannot legitimately claim the papacy. Therefore it remains vacant, until another papal claimant formally abandons the Vatican II council and re-establishes former traditional norms (prior to 1962 or prior to the reign of John XXIII).
Papal primacy, supremacy and infallibility
compared to popes
Ecumenical councils
compared to popes
Catholic episcopal councils
compared to popes
Political rulers
compared to popes
Existing dogma
compared to popes
Objections and controversy

The most recent edition of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that Catholics may not disregard the teaching of an ecumenical council even if it does not propose such as definitive. Accordingly, it also maintains the view that the present living pope alone judges the criterion of membership for being in communio with the Church. The present canon law further articulates:

Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a Doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.


In addition to general spiritual guidance, the Second Vatican Council produced very specific recommendations, such as in the document Gaudium et Spes: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” Dignitatis humanae, authored largely by United States theologian John Courtney Murray, challenged the council fathers to find “reasons for religious freedom” in which they believed, and drew from scripture scholar John L. McKenzie the comment: “The Church can survive the disorder of development better than she can stand the living death of organized immobility.”

As a result of the reforms of Vatican II, on 15 August 1972 Paul issued the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam which in effect suppressed the minor orders and replaced them with two ministries, those of lector and acolyte. A major difference was: “Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders.”

By “the spirit of Vatican II” is often meant promoting teachings and intentions attributed to the Second Vatican Council in ways not limited to literal readings of its documents, spoken of as the “letter” of the Council (cf. Saint Paul’s phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”).

The spirit of Vatican II is invoked for a great variety of ideas and attitudes. Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong used it with regard merely to an openness to dialogue with others, saying: “We are guided by the spirit of Vatican II: only dialogue and negotiation can solve conflicts.”

In contrast, Michael Novak described it as a spirit that:

… sometimes soared far beyond the actual, hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. …It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything “pre” was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic “in spirit”. One could take Catholic to mean the ‘culture’ in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as “them”.

From another perspective, Church historian John W. O’Malley writes:

For the new churches it recommended adaptation to local cultures, including philosophical and theological adaptation. It also recommended that Catholic missionaries seek ways of cooperating with missionaries of other faiths and of fostering harmonious relations with them. It asserted that art from every race and country be given scope in the liturgy of the church. More generally, it made clear that the church was sympathetic to the way of life of different peoples and races and was ready to appropriate aspects of different cultural traditions. Though obvious-sounding, these provisions were portentous. Where would they lead?— John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (Belknap Press, 2010).

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II, in October 2011, Benedict XVI declared the period from October 2012 to the Solemnity of Christ the King at the end of November 2013 a “Year of Faith”, as:

…a good opportunity to help people understand that the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance”. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition. …I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.

It has been suggested that the pontificate of Francis will be looked upon as the “decisive moment in the history of the church in which the full force of the Second Vatican Council’s reformist vision was finally realized.” Francis returned to the Vatican II theme of ressourcement, breaking with the Catholic philosophical tradition that had originated with Thomas Aquinas seven centuries before, and looked to original sources in the New Testament. In contrast to John Paul II who emphasized continuity with the past in Vatican II’s teachings, Francis’ words and actions were noted from the start for their discontinuities, with an emphasis on Jesus himself and on mercy: a “church that is poor and for the poor”, “disposal of the baroque trappings” in liturgical celebrations, and revision of the institutional aspects of the church. From his first gesture when elected Pope, calling himself simply Bishop of Rome, Francis connected with the thrust of the council away from “legalism, triumphalism, and clericalism”. He made greater use of church synods, and instituted a more collegial manner of governance by constituting a Council of Cardinal Advisers from throughout the world to assist him which a church historian calls the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries.” His refocusing the Church on “a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love” is also seen as coming from the Council, as is his lifting up the laity for mission and calling for the presence of women in theologates. He has softened the “forbidding” image of the Church by applying Vatican II’s views on respect for conscience to issues like atheism, homosexuality, and the sacraments. This has led to a struggle between “anti-Vatican II diehards and clerics who prefer John XXIII’s (and Francis’s) generosity of spirit.” On the issue of liturgy, he has tried to advance the renewal initiated by Vatican II that would elicit more conscious, active participation by the people. And while his predecessors had taken a dim view of liberation theology, his more positive view is seen as flowing from a discernment of “the signs of the times” called for by Gaudium et spes. He appointed more cardinals from the southern hemisphere and constituted an advisory counsel of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on reform, which a church historian calls the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries.”

Saints of Vatican II

Several of the fathers and theologians-experts, as well as several Roman Popes and council observers, became canonized saints or are in the process of canonization. These include:

  • John XXIII, pontiff who called for the council and presided over it first
  • Paul VI, second pope of the council
  • John Paul II, council father as Bishop Karol Józef Wojtyła
  • Álvaro del Portillo, council father
  • Fulton J. Sheen, council father
  • John Paul I (pre-papacy as a father)
  • Terence Cooke
  • Frank Duff
  • Cyril Bernard Papali


  1. In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between
    different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among
    nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws
    them to fellowship.

    One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to
    live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His
    manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.

    Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?
  2. From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain
    perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

    Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the
    same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in
    Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible
    abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical
    insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of

life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she
holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.
Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John
14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all
things to Himself.

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the
followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian
faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well
as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

  1. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and
    subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has
    spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.
    Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

    Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
  2. As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that
    spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.

    Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ-Abraham’s sons according to faith-are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself.

    The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsmen: “theirs is the
    sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4-5), the Son of the
    Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s main-stay and pillars, as well as
    most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ’s Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the
Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.

Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of
the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle. In company
with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on
which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder”
(Soph. 3:9).

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod
wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above
all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of
Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without
distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of
God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from
the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the
word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the
spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the
patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s
spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at
any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death
freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It
is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of
God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

  1. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man,
    created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).
    No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.
    The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or
    harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary,
    following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently
    implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12),
    and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

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