The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which met from 1962-1965, is incredibly significant for the Roman Catholic Church. Called by Pope John XXIII with observers from other denominations present, the Second Vatican Council represented aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) for the Roman Catholic Church. The First Vatican Council took place from 1869-1870, a time at which Pope Leo XIII gave the writings of Thomas Aquinas a privileged status, making them normative in matters of theology.
The Council composed a series of documents, which set out to define and reconfigure the theological boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. One document, “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium), made it possible for the Catholic Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people rather than exclusively in Latin. In this way, the Catholic Church was striving to reassert its relevance into a post-WWII culture experiencing shifts in globalization.
In addition, there was a new revival in the importance of the early Church’s worship, and the emphasis shifted from clerical exclusivism to the communal celebration of the Mass. Following the Council’s ruling, the priest faced the congregation, and the altar rails were removed. Also, the reading of Scripture and the homily were given a more important place in the Mass.
The document “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (Lumen Gentium) emphasized that the clergy and laity together constitute one people of God. It also reasserted papal authority and the leadership of bishops while including a very high Mariology, which was the most debated element of the Council. For Protestants concerned about any veneration of the mother of Christ, it is important to point out that the council affirmed the exclusivity of Christ as mediator: “In the words of the apostle there is but one mediator…(1 Tim. 2:5-6). But Mary’s function as mother of humankind in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power” (Bettenson).
Perhaps most importantly, we can look to the Council’s urging for us to be the church to the world in a relevant and faithful way.
There was an attempt at the Council to “inculturate” the Church. This means the Council made it a goal to move away from a highly centralized Church to an emphasis on local customs and liturgical styles.
The Council also accepted the principles of the “ecumenical movement.” While the old Roman Catholic principle stated extra ecclesiam non salus est (“there is no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church”), a more inclusive theology is expressed by the Council. The Council also sought to foster dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths and Christian denominations. In fact, the Council stated in regard to Eastern faiths, “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Yet, the Council still held to the fact that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Finally, the document, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), is what many consider the most radical document of the Council. It includes the Church’s teaching on human rights, dignity, and social justice. According to Bettenson, “the Church is to be a servant to the human race and to proclaim the presence and justice of God in the modern world.”
Protestants can glean wisdom from some of the formulations of the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps most importantly, we can look to the Council’s urging for us to be the church to the world in a relevant and faithful way. This is an affirmation that emphasizes an understanding of the gospel expressed in evangelism and in loving action to the world. So, while there may be elements of Vatican II with which we disagree, there is also that plenty we would affirm.