What the Council Did

General Congregation meeting at the Second Vatican Council. File photo courtesy Catholic News Service.

General Congregation meeting at the Second Vatican Council. File photo courtesy Catholic News Service.

In Christian theology, the action of the Holy Spirit is considered to be disruptive and unpredictable. It is the Holy Spirit who is the source of all creativity, all innovation, all wisdom, all knowledge and any kind of inspiration (“inspiration” coming from the Latin, meaning literally to have the Spirit enter you).The Council was guided by two main principles: aggiornamento (Italian for “updating”) and ressourcement(French for “going back to the sources”). So the reforms either returned to more ancient practices or took on modern practices and approaches.A Council of the Church is considered an occasion where the Holy Spirit is at work, and if the hallmarks of the Spirit are disruption and unpredictability, then the Spirit was most assuredly at work during the Second Vatican Council. The following are only some of the areas in which the Council changed the everyday lived experience of the world’s largest religion.

The witness of martyrs such as Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador, is fruit of the Council's approach to engagement with the modern world.

The witness of martyrs such as Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador, is fruit of the Council's approach to engagement with the modern world.

Engagement with the World

Before the Council, the Church hierarchy had considered itself a fortress set up against all aspects of the modern world. The papacy had been still embittered over losing its secular power when the Papal States were annexed to the new nation of Italy in 1870. In protest, the popes since then had refused to leave the confines of Vatican City. The Vatican had considered the idea that religious liberty was a human right and that Church and state should be separate as an actual heresy, called “Americanism.” Church leaders made no apology for their opinion that the modern world was a horrible place, and that everything was much better in the 13th Century.

With the Council, the hierarchy abandoned the idea of the Church as a fortress against the modern world. Pope John XXIII famously said that we are not here ot guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life. The Council fathers shared his optimism and sense of engagement with the world. They spontaneously decided to create a new document, Gaudium et Spes, which outlined a new working relationship between the Church and the modern world, saying “The joy and hope, the grief and anxiety of all the people of this time, especially those who are poor or in any way oppressed, this is the joy and hope, the grief and anxiety, of all the followers of Christ, for nothing genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.”

A New Relationship with Other Believers

Paul VI meets Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople, in Jerusalem as the first act of reconciliation between East and West.

Paul VI meets Athenagoras, Patriarch of Constantinople, in Jerusalem as the first act of reconciliation between East and West.

Less than 100 years before the opening of the Council, Pius IX had issued a furious condemnation of a number of ideas, which as a loose, somewhat unrelated group he called “Modernism.” Among the ideas he condemned was religious liberty, freedom of conscience, bible societies, secular governments nd many other elements of modern civilization. He also condemned the idea that God could be pleased with the lives of Protestants. As temporal monarch of the Papal States he had confined Jews to the ghetto and Protestant worship services were outlawed.From vigorous denial of the right of other Christians to practice their faith and brazen oppression of Jews, the Council brought the Church into a new era, where Jews are to be respected as “elder brothers and sisters in faith,” respected and not to be proselytized. Non-Catholic Christians became separated brothers and sisters, for whom we must be willing to give up external, insignificant practices to be more open to reunion with them.

Hundreds of years of anti-Semitism and a 400-year-old period of Counter-Reformation, in which the Church hierarchy defined itself according to what it was not (Protestant), came to a dramatic end. Muslims, against whom popes had led numerous wars, were now to be considered as sons and daughters of our common father Abraham, brothers and sisters with whom we must work together to solve the world’s problems.

John Paul II meets the chief rabbi of Rome as he becomes the first pope to visit a synagogue, an act made possible by the Second Vatican Council.

John Paul II meets the chief rabbi of Rome as he becomes the first pope to visit a synagogue, an act made possible by the Second Vatican Council.

A Different Approach to Ministry

Archbishop Wilton Gregory with some permanent deacons of the Archdiocese of Atlanta on their ordination day.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory with some permanent deacons of the Archdiocese of Atlanta on their ordination day.

For hundreds of years Church governance had revolved largely around the priesthood. Bishops were considered merely priests who had been given additional juridical authority, and the diaconate had long ago been subsumed into the priesthood, becoming merely a ceremonial step along a cursus honorumas a candidate progressed toward priestly ordination. The laity were considered subservient to priests. This was the era of “pay, pray and obey” for the laity. Recently, the role of the papacy had expanded, especially since the First Vatican Council, and the popular conception of the Church was made up of priests and pope, with bishops in between as “branch managers” subject to Curial officials.The Council definitively reinstated the three levels of holy orders: bishop, priest and deacon. The order of deacon, after a nearly 1,000-year hiatus, was restored as a life-long vocation, and the rights and authority of each bishop as a bishop was strongly stated. The bishop was not just a more powerful priest; instead the priest received his authority from the bishop; the bishop was not subject the Curia, but a teacher of the faith in his own right. The laity had the right and responsibility to transform the world by their baptism, not merely as assistants to priests.

Back to the Sources on Worship

Priests offering factory-style "private Masses" without congregations prior to the Second Vatican Council. Photograph courtesy Time, Inc., from Life Magazine.

Priests offering factory-style "private Masses" without congregations prior to the Second Vatican Council. Photograph courtesy Time, Inc., from Life Magazine.

The Council of Trent had undertaken some reforms of the liturgy, but their efforts were moderated lest they seem to be “giving in” to the Reformers. As a result, the liturgy had become calcified. As the Second Vatican Council opened, it had only been 60 years since Catholics had even been permitted to read the text of the Mass privately in their own language; translating the Mass had previously been forbidden under pain of excommunication. It was popularly believed that the Mass was the sole reserve of the priest, and the laity could only watch as passive spectators. In fact, many considered the presence of the laity as optional. The missal (book with Mass texts and instructions) never even mentioned the laity, and many, if not most, most Masses were “private Masses.” Sunday liturgical celebrations were silent and somber affairs, in which the priest generally rushed through the Latin the people could neither hear nor understand. During Mass th epeople would engage in private devotions or read books.The Council decreed that the liturgy was celebrated for all the People of God, who were encouraged to adopt “full, conscious and active participation.” Private Masses were discouraged, and priests were encouraged to adopt the ancient practice of “concelebration,” where more than one priest celebrated the same liturgy. The old language of Father “saying” Mass and the people “hearing”" Mass was dropped. The people of the world could now join in celebrating Mass in their own language, and pious Medieval accretions were dropped from the missal. Modern music was encouraged over the pious 19th century music then common. Lay people were given prominent responsibilities in the celebration of the liturgy, such as public proclamation of the scripture.

Hearing Scripture Differently

Since the time of the Reformation, the hierarchy had been wary of encouraging the faithful to read Scripture because there was a fear they would misinterpret it. Since Trent there had been growing comfort with the reading of Scripture; the first American Catholic bishop, John Carroll, was a great proponent of scripture and worked tirelessly to ensue that every American Catholic household could obtain a Bible. And for decades Catholic Scripture scholars had been advocating a move away from a literalistic interpretation of Scripture toward a more historical critical method. Pius XII had embraced this new approach.

So the Council’s clear rejection of biblical fundamentalism and literalism made sense; the Council Fathers also encouraged greater familiarity with Scripture and ensured that the riches of Scripture would be more lavishly shared in the liturgy. The Fathers also rejected a then-common idea of revelation as having two sources, scripture and tradition; instead they stated that scripture and tradition were two complementary forms of a single revelation.

Re-envisioning Religious Life

The traditional cornette of these Daughters of Charity were typical of habits common before the Council that impaired sight and hearing and made everyday tasks such as driving a car very difficult. The move away from such habits, which were typically modeled on the medieval widow's attire, was a visible result of the Council.

The traditional cornette of these Daughters of Charity were typical of habits common before the Council that impaired sight and hearing and made everyday tasks such as driving a car very difficult. The move away from such habits, which were typically modeled on the medieval widow's attire, was a visible result of the Council.

Those who live a consecrated life—priests, deacons, brothers and sisters of the various orders—were also encouraged to institute reforms. Thousands of religious orders and institutes made up the Catholic religious landscape. Some of them had lost the original vision of their founders as they took on ministries that were available, such as schools and hospitals. Communities wer encouraged to return to their roots and discern what their founders’ visions meant today, and to engage in a period of experimentation.

Respect for the Traditions of the East

John XXIII participates in an Eastern liturgy during the Council.

John XXIII participates in an Eastern liturgy during the Council.

Over the past centuries, some Eastern and Oriental churches had entered into full communion with the Catholic Church for various reasons. These 22 Eastern and Oriental Churches, disparaged by their Orthodox counterparts as “uniates,” also faced a certain level of ignorance and distrust on the part of the Roman Curia and even Western bishops in various places, who often tried to “Romanize” them.Chief among the advocates of the Eastern Churches at the Council was the great Maximos IV Saigh, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, who refused to speak in the required Latin and insisted that the Vatican recognize the historic role of patriarchs over cardinals. The Council recognized Eastern Christians in union with Rome as true Churches, rather than the previous terminology of “rites,” which seemed to indicate that they differed from Romans only in liturgy, while in fact they are also entitled to their own proper spirituality, theology, church governance and traditions.

A Simpler Church

Paul VI renounces the papal crown (tiara) during the Fourth Session of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, no pope has been crowned.

Paul VI renounces the papal crown (tiara) during the Fourth Session of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, no pope has been crowned.


When John XXIII became pope, he was crowned as a monarch. Popes were carried through the crowds on the sedia gestatoria, a portable gilded throne, bedecked in gold and costly silks. A gold-embroidered velvet canopy was carried over them, and two ostrich feather fans derived from the imperial Byzantine court were carried on either side. A retinue of dozens of elaborately costumed papal nobility and various grandees, dressed in elaborate military uniforms, accompanied him.

Paul VI sold the papal crown and gave the money to the poor. By the end of the Council, all the accumulated frou-frou of the past had been banned, and he walked himself down the central aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica vested in the dramatically simplified attire now common to bishops; gloves, lace, special boots and such having been abandoned. Bishops were forbidden from wearing the cappa magna, a 30-foot train of silk, in Rome. Around the world vesture was to follow the principle of “noble simplicity.” Bishops sold their mansions and gave up their limousines. Flowery language and elaborate gestures of respect were curtailed. Pius IX had required people to kneel even when they spoke to him on the telephone; now one could shake the hand of a smiling pope.

The Conciliar Documents

During the four years of the Council, much of the deliberation was centered on producing documents as records of what the Council chose to teach. These documents codify the teachings of the Council. They departed from past Church documents in that they rejected a tradition of confrontational, damning language. The Council fathers instead chose to frame their messages in the style of the Fathers of the Church of the great patristic era, and to make liberal use of Scripture — not as justifying proof texts as Church documents did before, but as starting points for teachings.

Four Constitutions

Nine Decrees

Three Declarations

Drop caps by Jessica Hische, Daily Drop Cap

Councils of the Church


The Catholic Church, a communion of 23 Churches of diverse theological and liturgical traditions, recognizes 21 ecumenical councils in the history of Christianity. By “ecumenical” we mean “the entire Church.” As noted below, other Churches recognize some but not all of these 21 councils: Eastern Orthodox recognize seven; Oriental Orthodox, four and the Assyrian Church of the East, two.

The Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 15) recounts the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem, where the incipient Christian community, then called “The Way,” decided to accept non-Jews as members without first becoming Jews. While the Council of Jerusalem holds a primacy of honor and importance, it is not generally included in the lists of ecumenical councils.

  1. Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) addressed the relationship of the Church to the modern world, including other Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Council acknowledged the right to freedom of belief and the separation of Church and state, reiterated its concern for the poor and denounced war. It restored the order of deacon as a permanent way of life and upheld the rights of bishops over the Roman Curia. It ordered wide-ranging reforms in liturgy, religious life, training of clergy and catechesis. 2,265 participants.
Contemporary engraving of the First Vatican Council

Contemporary engraving of the First Vatican Council

  1. First Vatican Council (1870; never officially concluded due to war) defined papal primacy in church governance and his infallibility, repudiated rationalism, materialism and atheism, addressed revelation, interpretation of scripture and the relationship of faith and reason. The Council intended to offer a detailed explanation of all the hierarchical roles, but never got around to clarifying the role of bishops before the participants fled Rome, thus leading to nearly a century of over-emphasis on the papacy. 774 participants.
The Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati Da Iesi, courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati Da Iesi, courtesy of Wikimedia.

  1. Council of Trent (1545–1563, with interruptions) prompted by widespread calls for reform that reached a climax in the Protestant Reformation, the Council addressed church reform such as education of clergy and endemic corruption, defined the role and canon of Scripture and the seven sacraments, instituted liturgical reforms and called for a revised missal (the “Tridentine Mass”) and a catechism. Originally the Council was to include leading Reformers, but that goal was never fully achieved. 225 participants.
  2. Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1514) addressed the rights of the hierarchy, affirmed the immortality of the soul, required permission for a book to be published and eliminated restrictions on lending practices. Martin Luther disseminated his 95 Theses only seven months after this Council concluded, having dealt with none of the substantive issues important to the Reformers. 100 participants.
  3. Council of Basel, Ferrara and Florence (1431–1445) called for reform of the papacy and negotiated a union with several branches of Orthodoxy that was short-lived. For many the union was merely political, and they quickly reneged; others were more sincere and they remained as the Eastern Churches still united today with Rome. The tumultuous, nomadic Council resulted in a 10-year schism when a rump faction of the Council elected an antipope. The fall of Constantinople only seven years after the Council doomed the ongoing talks for reunification of East and West. 148 participants.
The Council of Constance, from the Chronicle of the Council of Constance by Ulrich von Richental, c. 1460-1465, courtesy Wikimedia.

The Council of Constance, from the Chronicle of the Council of Constance by Ulrich von Richental, c. 1460-1465, courtesy Wikimedia.

  1. Council of Constance (1414–1418) was called to resolve the Great Western Schism, with three men claiming to be pope. The Council negotiated and end to the schism by electing a fourth man as pope. Regrettably, the Council also condemned efforts at reform by John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, resulting in the martyrdom of Hus and a deadly war. 600 participants.
  2. Council of Vienne (1311–1312) disbanded the Knights Templar and allowed for the confiscation of their property. The other acts of the Council have been lost. 180 participants.
  3. Second Council of Lyon (1274) achieved a very brief reunion with the Greek Orthodox that ended shortly after the death of the Byzantine Emperor who initiated it. Another crusade was proclaimed but never carried out. Minor reforms were ordered, including a requirement that electors be confined in a conclave until it is completed — a primary rule still in force today. The Franciscan and Dominican orders were formally approved. 560 participants.
  4. First Council of Lyon (1245) deposed the Holy Roman Emperor, who had Rome under siege, and called for a Crusade. Various minor reforms were ordered. A lasting legacy of this Council is the annual Good Friday collection undertaken in all Catholic Churches for the support of the Christian shrines and institutions of the Holy Land. 250 participants.
  5. Fourth Lateran Council (1215) enjoyed a high level of participation due to advance notice; participants were presented with 70 decrees and approved them all. The Council clarified points of Eucharistic theology, outlined procedures for dealing with heresy, forbad clergy from pronouncing, executing or being in any way involved with a death sentence, Called for various reforms of the clergy and regular chapters of religious orders (and forbad foundation of new orders), mandated special attire for Jews and Muslims. 1,383 participants.
  6. Third Lateran Council (1179) called in response to a schism that involved two antipopes, the Council forbad clergy from charging money for the celebration of sacraments (simony), deprived married clergy from their means of support, launched free cathedral schools that eventually became what we know today as universities, upheld the ban against taking interest on a loan (usury), required that only cardinals participate in a papal election with a two-thirds majority required for validity. 302 participants.
  7. Second Lateran Council (1139) forbad jousts and tournaments, re-affirmed the right of religious to participate in the election of a bishop, required clergy to dress modestly and not ostentatiously, and instituted various other clerical and financial reforms. 1,000 participants.
  8. First Lateran Council (1123) was the first council to be held in the West. In addition to mandating various financial reforms and decrying clerical corruption such as charging for ordination, the Council significantly demanded that kings had no authority to appoint bishops of popes (although this practice continues to some extent even today). The greatest lasting impact of the Council is mandatory celibacy — its ban on marriage for all clergy of major orders (bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons) in the Western Church. 1,000 participants.
  9. Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870) reflecting the growing tensions between East and West that would later result in open schism, the Council deposed Patriarch Photios I of Constantinople as an usurper and reinstated his predecessor. Photius had already been declared illegitimate by the pope. The Council also re-affirmed the tradition of sacred imagery against the iconoclasts. 109 participants.

First seven also recognized by Eastern Orthodox Churches

Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

  1. Second Council of Nicaea (787) is mainly known for the affirmation of the use of sacred imagery in the Church, denouncing as heresy the iconoclast (“icon-smasher”) position, which held that veneration of images was idolatry. Still, the Council was uncomfortable with sculpture in the round. Each year Eastern Churches celebrate the Council with The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. 350 participants.
  2. Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) clarified theological details about the nature of Christ, denying he had one “energy” or a single will. Both of these theories seemed to indicate that Christ was not both fully human and fully divine, so they were denied by the Council. 300 participants.
  3. Second Council of Constantinople (553) was called to once again bring the Oriental Churches to unity with the Eastern and Western Churches by bringing theological clarity to various Christological points about the nature of Jesus: that the two natures of Jesus were possessed by a single person. Unfortunately, the desired reunion between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches was not achieved. The acts of the Council have been lost. 152 participants.
Medieval illustration of the Council of Chalcedon from the Nuremburg Chronicles

Medieval illustration of the Council of Chalcedon from the Nuremburg Chronicles

  1. Council of Chalcedon (451) declared that Christ had two natures, human and divine, over those who insisted he was either God or human but not both. The Oriental Churches were accused of heresy because they held that Jesus had a single nature that was both human and divine. Today this would be considered simply a different way of describing the same belief, but the violent divisions that had arisen over Arianism (the idea that Jesus was a created being) resulted in great caution and precise terminology in those days. 370 participants.

First three also recognized by Oriental Orthodox Churches

Icon of the Council of Ephesus

Icon of the Council of Ephesus

  1. Council of Ephesus (431) was called to settle a dispute over the nature of Christ occasioned by the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who emphasized the humanity of Christ, claiming God could not suffer and die. This emphasis was expressed by insisting on calling Mary the Mother of Christ rather than the usual title Mother of God (Theotokos). The Council denied the position of Nestorius and reaffirmed the title of Mary as Theotokos. The Council also denied the theory that humans can attain salvation by their own merit without the help of God (Pelagianism). 250 participants.

First two also recognized by the Church of the East

Church of Hagia Irene, first church built in Constantinople and the site of the First Council of Constantinople

Church of Hagia Irene, first church built in Constantinople and the site of the First Council of Constantinople

  1. First Council of Constantinople (381) was called to try again to settle the nettlesome Arian controversy, which had also been the impetus for the Council of Nicaea. Theological controversy continued to divide Christianity, eluding a common concept of the nature of Christ. The Council affirmed the previous Council’s understanding expressed in the Nicene Creed. Significantly, this Council outlined the ranking of patriachal sees, including Constantinople as the second after Rome, higher in influence than Alexandria and Antioch. 150 participants (no Western bishops).
Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicea (325) holding the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicea (325) holding the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

  1. First Council of Nicaea (325) denied the theory of the Alexandrian priest Arius that Christ had only a human nature, crafting a detailed statement of belief, the Nicene Creed, that is still recited on Sundays in Christian Churches today with only minor changes. The Arian controversy incited such emotional reactions that Arius is said to have been slapped in the face by no less than St. Nicholas of Myra (the origin of the Santa Claus myth). The Nicene Fathers chose to use the Greek word homoousia (generally translated as “consubstantial”) to describe the relationship between the Son and the Father. Among other practices originating from this Council and still practiced today are the calculation of the date of Easter, the requirement that a bishop be ordained by at least three other bishops, and the prohibition of kneeling during the Sunday liturgy. The order of authority among the ancient patriarchates was established as Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. 318 participants (5 Western bishops).