The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (Vatican II)

by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.


In 1959, to the surprise of almost everyone, Pope John XXIII announced his intention of convoking an Ecumenical Council, the twenty-first such council in the history of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council met in four segments, from Fall 1962 to Fall 1965, under the leadership of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.

Pope John XXIIIPope John XXIII:

Five points of Pope John XXIII for achieving the pastoral renewal of the Church
(from his opening address on Oct. 11, 1962, as summarized by the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, pp. 21-22):

  1. Be filled with hope and faith. Do not be prophets of gloom.
  2. Discover ways of teaching the faith more effectively.
  3. Deepen the understanding of doctrine.
  4. Use the medicine of mercy (no “anathemas”).
  5. Seek unity within the Church, with Christians separated from Catholicism, with those of non-Christian religions, and with all men and women of goodwill.

Second Vatican CouncilTimeline of Vatican II:

The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II:

The bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council debated, amended, voted on, and eventually approved and published sixteen documents covering a wide variety of topics, some on internal ecclesial issues and some on the relationship of the Church to various other people in our world. The four largest and most important documents are called "Constitutions," while the shorter documents dealing with more particular issues are either called "Decrees" or "Declarations." These documents are foundational for a proper understanding of Catholic Christianity today, but are still in the process of being implemented fully.

Document Title in English Official Title
(First Words in Latin)
# Words
Final Vote
(Pro / Con)
in CCC
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium 12/4/1963 8,066 +182 2147 / 4 86
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 11/21/1964 17,489 +912 2151 / 5 294
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum 11/18/1965 3,420 2344 / 6 76
Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes 12/7/1965 24,076 2307 / 75 167
Decree on the Media of Social Communications Inter Mirifica 12/4/1963 2312 1960 / 164 5
Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite Orientalium Ecclesiarum 11/21/1964 1911 +912 2110 / 39 1
Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio 11/21/1964 4932 +897 2137 / 11 42
Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus 10/28/1965 6216 2319 / 2 14
Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life Perfectae Caritatis 10/28/1965 3406 2321 / 4 7
Decree on Priestly Training Optatam Totius 10/28/1965 3118 2318 / 3 2
Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem 11/18/1965 7254 2340 / 2 14
Decree on Mission Activity of the Church Ad Gentes 12/7/1965 9961 2394 / 5 39
Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests Presbyterorum Ordinis 12/7/1965 8112 2390 / 4 24
Declaration on Christian Education Gravissum Educationis 10/28/1965 2735 2290 / 35 3
Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate 10/28/1965 1217 2221 / 88 8
Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae 12/7/1965 3307 2308 / 70 22

See the Vatican Website for the full texts of the Documents of Vatican II

See also my Comparative Outlines of Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Documents of Vatican II

The Interpretation of Vatican II:

In 1985, twenty years after the conclusion of Vatican II, the Second Extraordinary Synod of Bishops met to reflect on the importance and the implementation of the teachings of the Council. The Synod's "Final Report" includes several criteria for the proper interpretation of the Documents of Vatican II:

  1. The theological interpretation of the conciliar doctrine must show attention to all the documents, in themselves and in their close inter-relationship, in such a way that the integral meaning of the Council's affirmations--often very complex--might be understood and expressed.
  2. Special attention must be paid to the four major Constitutions of the Council, which contain the interpretative key for the other Decrees and Declarations.
  3. It is not licit to separate the pastoral character from the doctrinal vigor of the documents.
  4. In the same way, it is not licit to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council.
  5. Moreover, the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church,
  6. and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the people of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.
    (Source: "The Church, in the Word of God, Celebrates the Mysteries of Christ for the Salvation of the World"; par. 5)


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