Through the history of the Catholic Church, popes and kings had called councils to oppose a threat, whether a heresy like Arianism at the Council of Nicaea in 325 or a movement like Protestantism at the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. In January of 1959, just a few months after his appointment as bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) announced the Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II.
This, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, was the first in which the Church would organize for something, not against something. The something for which the council strove was aggiornamento, an Italian term that means “bringing up to date.” Pope John XXIII, a man with an intuitive judgment of human hopes and needs, recognized that in the post-war era of the 20th century the Roman Catholic Church needed new life breathed into it.
Vatican II lasted from 1962 to 1965. When John XXIII died in 1963, his successor Pope John VI continued the council. The clergy divided into two factions over the proposal for reforms: the conservatives, who saw in the future a threat to the past and who opposed changes to the Catholic Church’s order; and the progressives, who saw in the future hope for a better Catholic future. In the end, the council fathers and advisers settled on sixteen constitutions, declarations, and decrees.
One of the main goals of the Second Vatican Council was giving the laity greater access to the activity of the Church. It instituted that Mass, theretofore conducted in Latin, should have a “suitable place” for the vernacular. Regarding Eucharist, the Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasized the participation of the laity in the sacrament. Before then, the church members could not partake of the bread and the wine. Priests were to further involve the laymen by making clear the nature and purpose of the rite of the Mass.
Where before the Catholic Church focused on clerical exclusivity, in the Lumen Gentium of Vatican it included the laity in the fold “People of God”, affirming that “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial of hierarchical priesthood are none the less interrelated; each in its own shares in the one priesthood of Christ.” In the Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican II went a step further in its recognition of the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations of Christianity as legitimate and important members of the body of Christ.
One of the most radical documents of Vatican II was Gaudium et Spes, which addressed the role of the Church in the world and its social struggles. This document encouraged the Church to “enter into dialogue with it [the human family] about all these various problems [current developments, individual meaning, nature’s and humanity’s destiny, etc.]” and to “be aware of and understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live.” In this understanding, the Church should press toward equality and justice for all those created in God’s image, regardless of gender, race, or other characteristic.
Vatican II, a milestone for the Catholic Church in the 21st century, did not meet unanimous approval from the universal body. From 1966 to 1972, some 8,000 American priests left their stations as the council’s decrees made unclear the identity and role of the priest. Between 32,000 and 39,000 nuns left their convents between 1966 and 1981, some because the Church was changing too quickly and others because it wasn’t changing fast enough.
For the 21st century, Vatican II enacted much good. It reformed a Catholic Church steeped in old tradition and needing to “catch up” with modern times. For church unity, it healed the schism that had split the Western Roman Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. To the world, the Catholic Church showed itself as an institution that could serve the needs of a new society.
My main source for the history of Vatican II was Chapter 45 of Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition.
Read the complete documents from Vatican II here.