In the forty years since the completion of the Vatican Council II, the controversy has yet to cease. There is still passionate debate between church conservatives, who feel the council went too far, and liberals, who feel church politics has prevented the original vision from becoming a reality. One side feels that the council was inspired by the devil, while the other side feels betrayed.
Many feel the Council brought changes that were long overdue, while others feel it was short of heresy. Nevertheless, roughly three generations of Catholics have grown up under Vatican II and it remains a point of contention with church leaders and parishioners worldwide.
Vatican Council is the name of two ecumenical councils of the Roman Catholic Church that were held in Vatican City in Rome. An ecumenical council is a meeting of church leaders called by a pope for a special purpose. There have been twenty-one ecumenical councils, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. To appreciate the controversy and impact of the Second Vatican Council, it is important to understand that it had been nearly one hundred years since the first Vatican Council, held in 1869 and 1879. Vatican I, called by Pope Pius IX, opened December 8, 1869 and had been suspended in 1870 due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. It never reconvened and left many issues left unresolved. However, before it was interrupted it did approve the doctrine of papal infallibility, stating that the pope can commit no error when he speaks as head the church "to proclaim, in matters of faith and morals, what is to be accepted by all Roman Catholics as the teaching laid down by Jesus Christ and His apostles."
The bishops of the church had been alienated from one another for almost a century. They had related "directly and almost exclusively to Rome."
Therefore, when they met in Rome for Vatican II, their mood was one of frustration, solitude and confusion. However, as they began to gather in informal groupings, theologians helped "them to update themselves on new theological thinking, from Christology to ecclesiology" and soon they began to see the possibilities they had never dared before. Eventually, the major challenges they faced were defined. "The church had to go beyond the scholastic understanding of natural law and return to an emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God's people...it had to promote unity of Christians with uniformism or return...and its relation with the world."
In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his intention to summon a council and some three years later, the Second Vatican Council, Vatican Council II, opened in Rome in October 1962, amid the Cuban missile crisis. Approximately 2,500 bishops and theologians convened to "redefine what it meant to be a Catholic, which meant, what it meant to be a Christian."
Many have described these times as a time of exhilaration, for it was not about scapulars and Latin, but about "engagement with the world, about the faith as a constant habit of attention...about not being in the church, but rather being the church."
What came out of the council, amid the sixteen documents ultimately issued, was a vastly more open church. Among the changes included, priests would now face the congregation when saying Mass, and moreover, Mass would no longer be restricted to Latin, but now may be said in the vernacular, the language of the people.
Furthermore, the church officially condemned anti-Semitism and declared that the role of the laity was as important as that of the priesthood. If not for Vatican II, "women would not feel as authenticated in the church, the liturgy would not range gloriously from plainsong to rap," nor, would it be as involved as it is in the cause of the poor.
Author Frank McConnell states that Joachim of Fiore in the early twelfth century "argued that after the age of the Father, the Old Testament, and the age of the Son, the New Testament, we were now entering the age of the Spirit, when the true freedom of God would establish itself on earth."
Many feel that the Second Vatican Council was a great step toward the age of the Spirit.
The general sessions of the council were held during four successive years, in four periods, from 1962-1965. The First Period, October 11 to December 8, 1962, included the Council Fathers and representatives of 86 governments and international bodies. Bishops decided to first consult among themselves in both national and regional groups, and in informal gatherings, resulting in a reworking of the structure of the council commissions and changing the priority of issues considered, including "liturgy, mass communications, the Eastern Rite churches, and the nature of revelation."
After adjournment, preparations for the next scheduled session in 1963 began. However, the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963, brought a slight delay and the council continued its preparation after the election of Pope Paul VI on June 22, 1963.
Pope Paul addressed the Second Period, September 29 to December 4, 1963, setting out four purposes: "to more fully define 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 contribution to separation; and to start a dialog with the contemporary world."
During this session, the bishops approved the constitution on the liturgy and the decree on the media of social communication.
The Third Period, September 14 to November 21, 1964, eight religious and seven lay women and additional lay males, were invited as observers. "Schemas on ecumenism, the Eastern Rite churches, and the constitution of the Church were approved and promulgated by the Pope."
Pope Paul instructed the bishops to defer to a commission of he had appointed, the topic of artificial contraception, an issue Paul John had given to the bishops. Pope Paul rejected schemas on the life and ministry of priests, although, promised this would be the first reviewed in the next session. The Third Period was closed by Pope Paul announcing a change in the eucharistic fast, and a declaration of Mary as 'Mother of the Church.'
Pope Paul opened the Fourth Period, September 14 to December 8, 1965, with the establishment of a Synod of Bishops, to preserve cooperation after the council. Final approval was given to the decree on religious freedom, pastoral office of bishops, life of those in religious orders, Christian education and education for the priesthood, relations with non-Christian religions, and the role of the laity.
There were four main issues of the Second Vatican Council. The first involved the Church. The council declared that "this single, unified Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church," governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops, "although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure."
This not only reconfirmed the hierarchical teaching structure of the Church, but stressed the unique role of religious orders and lay person, and that there was a "universal call to holiness for all Christians."
One issue that had the most immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics was the revision of the liturgy. The council established guidelines to "govern the revision of the liturgy, which included allowing the use of local languages instead of Latin...as bishops determined local or national customs" that would be incorporated.
The council also revived the central role of scripture in the "theological and devotional life of the Church...carefully crafting a more modern approach to scriptural analysis and interpretation."
This involved revelation by both scripture and tradition. "The Church was to continue to provide versions of the Bible in the mother tongue of the faithful, and both clergy and laity were to make Bible study a central part of their lives."
Before Vatican II, priests answered to bishops, bishops answered to archbishops, and on upward to the Pope. The Second Vatican Council returned the "role of a bishop to its origins as direct successor of the original group of apostles."
Moreover, the role of the College of Bishops, or other particular "groups for specific places, was enhanced," resulting in bishops' conferences taking over much of the past roles of archbishops and provinces.
The Second Vatican Council ended December 8, 1965. However, before it ended, in order to help carry forward the work of the council, Pope Paul formed a "Papal Commission for the Media of Social communication to assist bishops with the pastoral use of the media."
He also declared a jubilee from January 1 to May 26, 1966, urging all Catholics to study and accept the decisions of the council. The Holy Office would now be known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Paul also "established post-conciliar commissions for bishops and the government of dioceses, religious orders, missions, Christian education, and the role of lay persons."