The Second Vatican Council

I. An Introduction to the Second Vatican Council 

There was a time, not so long ago, that in the Protestant home the pope and his church were considered the personification of the antichrist and his hosts. Even today certain peoples reveal strong opposition to the Roman Catholic Church: Think, for instance, of the nomination of Kennedy a few years ago for the presidency. This is seen occasionally too when sons or daughters marry those of another denomination and” join the church to which their spouse belongs. If the other denomination happens to be Protestant (no matter how “modern”), not much is said; but should that denomination be the Roman Catholic Church, the action is then considered virtually the equivalent of selling one’s soul to the devil. 

But in recent years several developments have taken place which have gained for the Roman Catholic Church a great measure of respectability and even admiration in the minds of many Protestants,—particularly those in our country. These same developments have increased talk of the possibility of mergers, or at least, cooperation, with the Roman Catholic Church. There was, first of all, the election of a Roman Catholic president in our country. Secondly, there was the terrible assassination of this same president with the resultant nationally televised Roman Catholic funeral service. Finally, and of continuing impact, there has been the Roman Catholic Council which has been meeting at the Vatican in Rome. 

It is this last event that I plan to consider in this and subsequent articles. Will this Council indeed “renew” the Romish Church, as the late Pope John wished? Will it serve as a beginning step toward reunion between Rome and the “separated brethren? We might well ask also if this Council is not a preliminary step toward the establishment of the one antichristian church which will seek to suppress and kill the true Church of Jesus Christ shortly before He returns. 

It must be noted that, though there are criticisms concerning the present progress of the Second Vatican Council, men are almost unanimous in evaluating the Council and its purposes favorably. Typical of such evaluation is the article Pope John’s Great Gift:

Measured even against the other portentous events of 1962, the turning point that Christianity reached in the opening session of the Ecumenical Council in Rome is already assured a firm place in history. By convening the council to “renew” the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII set in motion ideas and forces that will affect not only all Christians, but the whole world’s population long after the secular concerns of this tense yet hope-filled time have dimmed.¹


What would an “ecumenical council” be? A council is an assembly met for deliberation or to give advice. “Ecumenical” is derived from the Greek, meaning “from the inhabited world.” For the Roman Catholic Church, an ecumenical council would be a gathering of the hierarchy of the entire church which will render decisions on controversies or on faith and morals. Other churches, particularly the Greek Orthodox, have objections to the term “ecumenical” in the case of this Vatican Council, for they regard themselves also as part of the historic church. Since they are not given a voice in the council, so they contend, it cannot truly be called “ecumenical,” that is, from all the church in the whole world. To avoid as much as possible any offense on this account, Rome quickly named the present Council: “Vatican II.” Almost invariably Rome will refer to the Council by that name rather than the more general “Ecumenical Council.” 

There are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, prior to Vatican II, a total of twenty Ecumenical Councils. The first of these was that of Nicea in 325 A.D., which decided against Arianism and set forth the truth of the divinity of Christ. The last Council, prior to Vatican II, was Vatican I, which assembled first in 1869. It was this Council which established the dogma (for the Romish Church) of papal infallibility when the pope spake ex cathedra. It was this decision which led many to believe that there would never be another ecumenical council—since now the pope could declare infallibly the position of the church. Preceding Vatican Council I, had been the Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563. It was this council which set forth the Romish doctrines, opposing those taught by the Reformers. 

The present council, number twenty-one, according to Romish calculations, began meeting on October 11, 1962. Its second session opened on September 29, 1963 and concluded this past December 4. In how many more sessions and how many more years this council will meet, no one knows for sure. Estimates range from one concluding session this summer (1964) to as long as ten or more years. 


Modern-day councils must be convoked by the pope himself. From the various accounts given, it appears that Pope John XXIII originally and suddenly conceived of the idea of a council, and convoked it even over opposition of a large part of the Curia.

A few months after his election in 1958 Pope John XXIII was talking about the state of the church with his secretary of state, the late Domenico Cardinal Tardini. The prospects for de future could not have been reassuring. . . . Suddenly, as the Pope recalled it recently:

“Our soul was illuminated by a great idea which we felt in that instant and received with indescribable trust in the Divine Master. A word solemn and binding rose to our lips: ‘A Council!'”²

At the first session of Vatican II there were gathered some 2,700 Roman Catholic readers (compared to approximately 750 at Vatican I). This gathering represented the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the entire world: cardinals, patriarchs, primates, archbishops and bishops, and the abbots and superiors of certain orders. These men are called upon to decide. Their decisions, subject only to papal confirmation, are binding on all Roman Catholics.³ 

One very serious question has been asked: why a council? Many Protestant leaders were admittedly very surprised at the convocation of this council. They were even more startled to hear the divergent views expressed at the sessions. In his book, The Vatican. Council and All Christians, Claud D. Nelson states:

For our purpose let us say, first, that the council is not a parliament. Its acts are not binding unless and until they are approved by the pope. The pope, on the other hand, has adequate authority without the support of the council. . . . When the pope makes it plain that he is speaking ex cathedra, his teaching is nevertheless considered as authoritative. . . . 

Not only does the pope have sufficient authority to rule without a council; he has an elaborate administrative organization. For each of the major concerns of the Church there is a congregation, headed by a cardinal, with an adequate staff. . . . These various bodies are Collectively referred to as de “Curia,” which means court in the old monarchial sense. Their members and staff resident in Rome number in the hundreds. 

It is not even necessary for the pope to assemble a council in order to have the advice of the bishops around the world. A very careful sort of referendum preceded the proclamation of the dogma of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. Also, bishops have their appointed schedule of regular visits to Rome and to the pope, called ed limina (to the threshold)?4

Yet, there were very good reasons for calling this council. Pope John (who has been called “an intuitive being who can pierce to the heart of a matter without taking the circuitous route of deeper and more discursive minds”) astutely realized this. For, first of all, this proved to be’s very effective (though expensive) means of keeping the Roman Catholic Church before the eyes of the world,—for what news media failed to report the happenings of the council? But, secondly, and I believe primarily, the council is a deliberate attempt to change the image of the Romish Church in the world’s mind. Such a goal could hardly be attained apart from the council. It is true that a definite attempt is being made to “renew” the Roman Catholic Church—but in a way that makes the Romish Church appear very democratic (thus breaking down the old image of a one-man, authoritarian, popish rule and, consequently, removing many of the old Protestant fears of the hierarchy); and the council is meant to convey the impression of religious liberty within the church—and even to those without. How successful this has already been is only too obvious when one reads the “Protestant” comments on the council.


To give an idea of the preliminary work required before the council even began to meet, I quote again from the book, The Council and All Christians:

The first stage of the Council’s work was designated as ante-preparatory. This period lasted some eighteen months. During that time, bishops and heads of seminaries around the world consulted their fellow Catholics and sent in their opinions and desires with regard to the Council. That material was assembled and collated in fifteen volumes totaling more than nine thousand pages. The first volume, the only one made public, contains the Pope’s speeches that refer to the Council up to the summer of 1960. The rest is secret as far as the public is concerned, but was classified and indexed for the convenience of the various bodies engaged in preparing the work of the Council. 

Early in June, 1960, Pope John announced the formation of ten commissions besides a Central Commission, a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and two other secretariats to deal with administrative details. The ten commissions have dealt with theology, the episcopacy, church discipline, the religious orders; the sacraments, the Sacred Liturgy, studies and seminaries, the Oriental churches, missions, and the apostolate of the laity. . . . Also, an eleventh commission was added during the summer of 1960, to deal with ceremonies, protocol, and related matters. 

. . . Each of the preparatory bodies, organized according to its particular needs and materials, has held several plenary sessions during the two years of preparation, bringing in members and consultants from all over the world. Their work was passed on, in turn, to the Central Commission, which organized the material for communication in advance to members of the assembly and thus, in effect, prepared the agenda.5

After three and a half years of intensive preparation, the council began its sessions. Even then it appears to be very difficult to bring a schema to final adoption. The council must first decide what material will be treated. Before the first session, over seventy schemata (preliminary drafts) were projected. During the first session only five reached the beginning of the voting stage and none were ready for final adoption when the council recessed. By the time the second session opened, the number’ of schemata had been cut down to seventeen. Before the third session, the number likely will be even less.6 

The discussions and voting are evidently very protracted affairs. Discussion is all in Latin, although at the second session a translation system was introduced. The members of the council, after discussion, must vote on each chapter of a certain schema. The vote can be one of three: placet(approval), placet juxta modum (approval, but with certain changes of expression), or non-placet(disapproval). If there is disapproval, or approval but with reservations, the chapter of the schema must be reworked (in harmony with the desires of the majority of the council) by the conciliar commission (composed. presently of thirty members) appointed to treat that aspect of the agenda. After a schema is fully approved, it becomes church law (and thus binding on all Roman Catholic members) only after it receives papal confirmation. To date two schemata have been so confirmed on December 4, 1963: The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy and The Constitution on Social Communication. These I hope to consider in greater detail later. 

—G.V.B .

¹ Reader’s Digest, April 1963, page 141 

² Robert T. Elson, Life, October 12, 1962 

³ Time, February 9, 1959, pg. 54 

4 Claud D. Nelson, The Vatican Council and All Christians, Association Press, pp. 42-44 

5 Ibid. pp. 47-49 6. Council Jottings, America, November 9, 1963, page 553