Council Regulations

On September 5, 1962, Pope John XXIII issued the motu proprio Approprinquante concilio, which was dated August 6. The document accompanied a set of regulations detailing the day-to-day operations of the Second Vatican Council, from how votes will be taken to what the Council Fathers would wear. The following summary of the Council structure was provided by the National Catholic Welfare Council News Bureau, the predecessor organization to Catholic News Service.

Resume of the regulations for the council prepared and distributed by the press affice of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which the Pope said must be “observed faithfully” during the council.

Part One: The Participants

The first part is divided into nine chapters which are subdivided into 18 articles, including an introduction in which it is stated who are the council Fathers and their obligation, according to the Code of Canon Law, to have themselves represented by a deputy should it be impossible for them to attend personally. In the introduction there are also listed the people who perform tasks during the council: theologians, canonists, experts on different disciplines, the Secretary General, the undersecretaries, the masters of ceremonies, those who assign the seats, the notaries, the promoters, the ballot examiners, the scribes-archivists, the readers, the interpreters, the translators, the stenographers, the technicians.

The first three chapters define the essential structural outline and duties of the public sessions, of the general congregations and of the council commissions.

The public sessions are presided over by the Pope and in his presence the council Fathers express their vote on the decrees and canons previously discussed and prepared at the general congregations.

The general congregation is presided over, in the name and with the authority of the Pope himself, by one of the 10 cardinals chosen and named by the Holy Father to form the Council of the Presidency.

The council commissions amend, and eventually prepare, according to the opinion expressed by the Fathers during the general congregations, the projects of the decrees and canons.

There are 10 council commissions and they are composed as follows:

  • One cardinal president named by the Pope;
  • One or two vice presidents elected by the president from among the members of the commission;
  • One secretary chosen by the president from among the theologians or canonists or experts of the council;
  • Twenty-four members, of whom 16 will be elected by the Fathers of the council and eight named by the Pope.
  • The 10 council commissions are named according to the subjects they must examine:
    1. The Doctrinal Commission for Faith and Morals;
    2. Commission for Bishops and the government of dioceses;
    3. Commission for the Oriental Churches;
    4. Commission for the Discipline of the Sacraments;
    5. Commission for the Discipline of the Clergy and the Christian people;
    6. Commission for the Religious;
    7. Commission for the Missions;
    8. Commission for Sacred Liturgy;
    9. Commission for Seminaries, Studies and Catholic schools;
    10. Commission for the Apostolate of the Laity, for the Press and Entertainment.

As one can see, the council commissions follow almost the same outline as the preparatory commissions, with the exception of the 10th, which combines the preparatory Commission for the Lay Apostolate with the preparatory Secretariat for Press and Entertainment.

To these 10 commissions there are added moreover:

  1. Secretariat for Extraordinary Questions of the council. The duty of this secretariat will be to examine possible new problems of special importance proposed by the Fathers and, if need be, to refer them to the Holy Father. This secretariat is presided over by the Cardinal Secretary of State and its secretary is the secretary general of the council.
  2. The Secretariat for the Union of Christians,
  3. the Technical-Organizational Commission, and
  4. the Administrative Secretariat.

The last three bodies continue to exist because they have not finished their task and they keep their characteristic nature and structure of the preparatory period.

Council Fathers in Opening Ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council

Council Fathers in Opening Ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council. From Life Magazine. © Time Inc.

The fourth chapter establishes the composition and the duties of the Administrative Tribunal. This was constituted with the duty of defining possible disciplinary questions. It consists of 10 members and is presided over by a cardinal. Both members and cardinal are named by the Pope.

The fifth chapter illustrates the qualifications and the duties of the council experts, that is, of the theologians, canonists and others. They are designated by the Pope.

They take part in the general congregations but without right to speak or to be interrogated. They collaborate with the members of the council commissions, on the invitation of the individual presidents of these commissions, for the purpose of compiling and correcting the texts and of preparing reports.

The council Fathers can moreover make use not only of the official council experts but also of theologians, canonists and private experts who, though bound by secrecy regarding the questions discussed in the council of which they are informed, cannot however take part in the general congregations or in the meetings of the council commissions.

The sixth chapter, subdivided into four long articles, deals with the General Secretariat, directed by the secretary general who is assisted by two undersecretaries. This secretariat is subdivided into four different offices:

  1. The Office of Sacred Ceremonies, to which belong the prefect of ceremonies, the masters of ceremonies and the people in charge of assigning the seats;
  2. The Office of Juridic Acts, consisting of notaries, promoters and ballot examiners;
  3. The Office for recording and preserving of the council acts, in which, work the scribe-archivists, the readers, the interpreters, translators and stenographers;
  4. The Office formed by all the people responsible for the technical equipment used for recordings, voting, etc.

All the members of these different offices depend on the secretary general and are named by the Holy Father. Their individual duties, which are easily identified by the definition of their appointments, are subsequently clearly defined in the regulations.

The seventh chapter outlines the duties of the two custodians of the council, who are also named by the Holy Father.

The eighth chapter of the first part deals with the observers who are sent by the Christian churches separated from the Catholic Church.

They can attend the public sessions and the general congregations, with the exception of special cases indicated by the Council of the Presidency; they cannot, however, intervene in the discussions or vote. They cannot take part in the meetings of the council commissions without the permission of the lawful authority. They can report to their communities on the council meetings, but they are bound by secrecy regarding any other person. The Secretariat for Union is the official body of the council for the necessary contacts with the observers and it is the duty of the secretariat to make the necessary provisions enabling them to follow the work of the council.

Part Two: The Norms Which Must Be Observed at the Council

The second part consists of 12 chapters subdivided into 25 articles.

They contain first of all indications regarding the procedure for convoking council meetings, and establish that the public session and the general congregations will be held in St. Peter’s, whereas the commissions will meet in premises as close as possible to the basilica.

Council Fathers attired for a general congregation of the Council. Photo from the Council Daybook.

Council Fathers attired for a general congregation of the Council. Photo from the Council Daybook.

At the public sessions all the Fathers having episcopal rank, as well as abbots and prelates, will wear a white cope and miter. But at the general congregations the cardinals will wear red or violet cassocks, according to the liturgical season, with rochet, short cape and mozetta; patriarchs will dress in violet with rochet, short cape and mozetta; archbishops and bishops will wear violet cassock with only the rochet and short cape [i.e., the mantelletta as shown in the above photo—Ed.]; abbots, prelates nullius and the superiors of religious orders will wear their own choir dress.

Precedence is established as follows: cardinals,1 patriarchs, primates, archbishops, bishops, abbots and prelates nullius, abbots primate, abbots superior of monastic congregations, the superiors general of orders and of the exempted religious clerical congregations. Procurators also have their special place according to order of precedence; a special place is also reserved to the council experts.

The fourth and fifth chapters established the norms for the profession of faith and for the oath of secrecy.

Ambo from which addresses were made to the Council Fathers

Ambo from which addresses were made to the Council Fathers

The sixth and seventh chapters prescribe that Latin is the only language which can be used at public sessions, at the general congregations, at the meetings of the Administrative Tribunal and for the compiling of the acts. The readers, interpreters, and translators are held at the disposal of the Fathers to make the use of Latin easier for them.

At the meetings of the council commissions modern languages can also be used in addition to Latin, but subject to immediate translation into Latin.

The eighth chapter provides indication of how the discussions in the council hall must proceed.

  1. Every question which is to be discussed must be presented and illustrated at the general congregation by a relator who is designated by the president of the commission involved;
  2. Every Father who intends to intervene in order to approve, reject or amend the text, must present a request to the presidency, through the general secretary, and, when his turn comes, he must clearly outline the reasons for his intervention, subsequently handing in writing the possible amendments he proposes. The Fathers are requested not to exceed, if possible, 10 minutes when they speak to illustrate their thought.
  3. The general congregation, after hearing the reply of the relator, will vote on the individual proposals and amendments, deciding on whether they are to be rejected or included in the project.
  4. If the amendments are accepted, the relator—once the text has been returned to the council commission for correction—will have to submit again the new formula for the examination of the general congregation.
  5. If the amended project is not approved in all its parts by the general congregation, the same routine will have to be followed again for its ultimate perfection.

Chapter nine indicates the formulae and the methods which must govern the ballots: placet (yes), non placet (no), at public sessions in the presence of the Holy Father; placet, non placet, or placet juxta modum (yes, but with changes), at the general congregations and at the commissions. Whoever casts a ballot placet juxta modum must explain in writing the reasons for his reservations.

Ballot from the Second Vatican Council

A ballot from the Second Vatican Council. This punch-card, showing holes for mechanical tabulation, was printed for the vote on Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document calling for the reform of the liturgy. The stamps were added later, postmarked to commemorate the last day of the Council. From the collection of Rev. Richard Kunst.

Ballots are cast with special cards, which will be examined by a new mechanical system unless the president of the assembly decides otherwise case by case.

There must be a two-thirds majority in the ballots taken at public sessions, general congregations and at meetings of the council commissions, unless special provisions to the contrary are decided by the Supreme Pontiff.

The 10th chapter deals with the possibility of new questions being presented for discussion by the council. In order that these may be examined by the Council of the Presidency, the person submitting them must present them in writing together with the reasons which justify his act. But they must always be questions concerning problems pertaining to public welfare and of such importance that they demand the attention of the council.

The last chapters of the second part forbid the Fathers explicitly—referring to Canon 225 of canon law— from leaving the council before it has ended. In the event that any one of them has to leave Rome for urgent reasons while the council is still meeting, the permission of the president will have to be requested; when one has to be absent from a meeting of the public sessions or of the general congregations, the Council of the Presidency in this case too must be warned through the secretary general.

Part Three: Procedure of the Meetings

The third part consists of only three chapters which are divided into 27 articles. This part envisages in all its details the procedure of the meetings of the public sessions, the general congregations and the council commissions.

Preceded and accompanied by special liturgical ceremonies, the public sessions are presided over by the Holy Father.

After reading from a special pulpit the prepared decrees and canons, the secretary general asks for the vote of the Fathers, the result of which is immediately communicated to the Pope.

If the Supreme Pontiff approves in his turn these decrees and canons, he pronounces the solemn formula: “The decrees and canons just read are pleasing to the Fathers (without exception, or with the exception of- votes to the contrary). And we also, with the approval of the sacred council, decree, establish and promulgate them as they have been read.”

The general congregations are held on the basis of a precise calendar, which is communicated beforehand to the Fathers. Every day work begins with the Holy Mass which is celebrated by a council Father who is designated by the president and with the prayer of the “Adsumus”; it ends with the prayer of the “Agimus.” According to the procedure outlined in the second part, every project is examined and perfected.

When the time of its final compilation is reached, the president submits it to the Holy Father, to permit him, if he deems it opportune, to accept it for approval at the public session.

In their turn, the council commissions base the procedure of their meetings on the general congregations, with the exception of the special and individual needs of the task entrusted to them: that of preparing the projects which are to be discussed, presenting them to the general congregations, amending them according to the proposals expressed by the Fathers during the joint meetings in the council hall.

From Council Daybook: Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2, Floyd Anderson, ed. © 1965 by The National Catholic Welfare Conference, Inc. Used by permission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the successor organization to the NCWC. All rights reserved.

  1. Upon the intervention of Patriarch Maximos IV, during the council the rank of patriarch was recognized as above that of a cardinal, as had been the ancient practice; Rome-centric curialists had mistakenly assumed that cardinals rank higher