Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The Second Vatican Council in Roman Catholicism, 1962-1965, which was the first "ecumenical" church council of Roman Catholics since Vatican I in 1869-1870, was convened by Pope John XXIII with the explicit purpose of aggiornamento , that is, updating the church to function in modern society.

According to Roman Catholic teaching, an ecumenical council consists of all cardinals and bishops assembled to consider church affairs and who are institutionally empowered to affect the teaching, pastoral policy, and self-organization of the church. The mandate given by Pope John XXIII to the council fathers was to adapt church structures to the needs and methods of our times.

The 16 conciliar decrees that resulted from the four council sessions created major changes in the theology and practices of the Catholic Church worldwide. These changes are summarized by Dulles (1988) as follows: (1) aggiornamento , that is, updating, modernization, or adaptation of the church to the mid-twentieth century; (2) reformability of the church, that is, the admission that the church has committed errors in the past, accepts responsibility, and is intent on reformation; (3) renewed attention to the Word of God, focus upon the Scriptures, and liturgy in the vernacular so that people can understand the message of God; (4) collegiality, that is, the view of the pope as head of the college of bishops with each bishop governing his diocese in consultation with his priests, religious, and laity; (5) religious freedom, or the approval of civil tolerance for all faiths and the rejection of any coercion in the sphere of belief; (6) active role of the laity, that is, expansion of roles for the laity in divine worship, in pastoral councils, and in the mission of the church; (7) regional and local variety, or the recognition that diversity of customs, language, and observances enhances the richness of the church; (8) ecumenism, or reverence for the heritage of other Christian churches; (9) dialogue with other religions, both Christian and non-Christian alike, that establishes dynamic tension between dialogue and the need for mission activities so that Christ may be acknowledged among all peoples; (10) social mission of the church, establishing the apostolate of peace and social justice as a continuation of Christ's compassion on the poor and oppressed.

While many Catholics lauded the changes effected by Vatican II, there also arose a reactionary movement whose members accused the church of succumbing to the heresy of modernism. The conflict between the liberals and conservatives in the postconciliar church remains unsettled. However, there is widespread agreement among both Catholics and non-Catholics that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church is very different from the church that existed prior to the Second Vatican Council.

Helen Rose Ebaugh


G. Burns, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

A. Dulles, The Reshaping of Catholicism (San Francisco: Harper, 1988)

H. R. Ebaugh (ed.), Vatican II and U.S. Catholicism (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1991)

W. McSweeney, Roman Catholicism (New York: St. Martin's, 1980).

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