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Vatican Council

Updated on December 27, 2016

There are to two ecumenical, or general, councils of the Roman Catholic Church. They are called Vatican councils because they were held in Vatican City, the Pope's headquarters in Rome. The first Vatican council, opened by Pope Pius IX in 1869, sought to strengthen the Church against what it considered dangerous changes in the secular world. It is known for the dogma of papal infallibility. The second Vatican council, opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, modified certain aspects of the Church in the light of modern conditions.

Vatican I. The first Vatican council was called to strengthen the Church against 19th-century nationalists, liberals, materialists, and others, who had challenged the faith and in some places deprived the Church of control of schools and property. Of about 1,000 eligible bishops and heads of religious orders, about 750 attended the council. Protestants and Orthodox Eastern Christians were invited but did not accept. The council fathers first accepted a constitution on faith that restated the more basic Catholic doctrines formulated at the Council of Trent more than 300 years earlier, and they condemned as erroneous those who denied the doctrines. For example, in opposition to materialism, which holds that only matter exists and that it exists by necessity, the council declared that God is different from matter and created the world freely. The council held that God be known by both reason and faith, which cannot contradict each other, despite what some scientists say. It stated that He is truly revealed through miracles and through the Bible, which some persons falsely hold to be human products. Despite the opposition of some bishops, the great majority of council fathers voted to state explicitly the already implicitly accepted doctrine of papal infallibility. This doctrine holds that the Pope is divinely preserved from error when, in his role as teacher, he makes statements on matters of faith and morals applying to the whole Church.

Vatican I was suspended with most of its work still undone in the summer of 1870, when Italian soldiers seized Rome from the Pope to make it the capital of the newly united Italy. The council's statements on papal infallibility caused some Catholic theologians in Germany and Switzerland to break away from the Church and to form the Old Catholic Church. Nevertheless the work of centralization was continued by the conservative Roman Curia.

Vatican II. Pope John XXIII unexpectedly called the second Vatican council to meet in 1962. John wanted Vatican II to bring about an aggiornamento, or updating, of the Church with special emphasis on its pastoral, rather than theological or administrative, functions. The council was also to be part of the ecumenical movement then stirring in all branches of Christendom. The council met in the fall seasons of 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965. After the death of John in 1963 the last three sessions were called by Pope Paul VI. He followed John's modernizing approach.

About 2,500 of 2,900 eligible council fathers attended Vatican II. Protestant and Orthodox Eastern observers were present at all sessions, lay Catholic observers were admitted to the second session, and Catholic women observers attended the third session. Some council fathers, especially those from northern Europe, adopted a positive attitude toward change, in the spirit of Pope John. Other fathers, including many attached to the Curia, took the more conservative view that existing institutions should be strengthened.

The council approved 16 documents on the Church and its relation to the rest of the world. The document "On the Church" included a general discussion of the nature and function of the Church and the special honor paid to Mary. The document on revelation stressed the close connection between scripture and tradition as guides to the faithful. The document on the liturgy sought to make worship more meaningful by permitting national languages to replace the traditional Latin in most of the Mass, providing for more lay participation, and modifying the administering of some of the sacraments. In a document on bishops, a statement on the collegiality of bishops declared that the college of bishops, with the Pope, has supreme authority over the whole Church, rather than each bishop being responsible only for his own diocese. Separate documents dealing with priests, religious institutions, education, and missions stressed broader training and adjustment to modern conditions.

In the major document "The Church in the Modern World" the council proclaimed the dignity and community of all men, urged equality of political rights and more equitable distribution of wealth, and condemned aggressive war and the arms race. The council approved documents encouraging Catholics to work for ecumenism, or the unity of Christians, and offering friendship to the major non-Christian religions, including a statement that the Jews as a people were not guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus. Abandoning a traditional theory that "error has no rights," the council issued a document on religion as a matter of free conscience not to be subjected to force.


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