With a new pope, Vatican II reached its third beginning

March 18, 2013

In looking back on the Second Vatican Council, it appears so natural that the council met for about two months every fall from 1962 through 1965.

However, it didn’t have to be that way. The Council of Trent, for example, met in 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563 and did not meet at all for 10 years because the pope during that period, Paul IV, strongly opposed the council. Vatican I held four sessions between December 1869 and September 1870 before it was suspended due to the Franco-Prussian War.

The effectiveness of Vatican II was due, in no small part, to a new pope’s decision to reconvene the council a mere three months after his election. Pope Paul VI did not tarry; he knew that the momentum of the first session could have easily been stalled by the curial cardinals unhappy with the direction set in 1962.

So, when the second session of Vatican II opened Sept. 29, 1963, the council majority was now setting the council’s agenda. There had been bitter arguments behind closed doors during the intersession as various conciliar commissions worked on proposed documents. But in the end, the majority had established a clear direction, one that would be ratified by the council fathers themselves during the second session.

Nevertheless, historian Alberto Melloni says when the second session opened, there was a mood of disenchantment that contrasted sharply with the jubilation at the opening a year earlier. The first session had been tedious and confrontational; more of the same was expected in the fall of 1963.

Pope Paul VI opens the second session of the Second Vatican Council Sept. 29, 1963.


Pope Paul VI opens the second session of the Second Vatican Council Sept. 29, 1963.

The main task facing the new session was to finish the work of Vatican I – to develop an understanding of the nature of the Church that was more broadly focused than on the idea of papal infallibility. There would surely be more controversy.

Pope Paul gave a lengthy opening talk that focused on four points. First, he laid out several images of the Church and called on the council to present the nature, definition and constitution of the Church. Second, the Church needed to be renewed in the sense of dropping outdated forms of tradition.

Third, the pope apologized for the Church’s errors in contributing to Christian disunity. Fourth, he called for a dialogue with the world so that the Church could better relate to the current age.

Theologian Yves Congar noted that, especially with the fourth point, there was a shift from the approach of Pope John XXIII. Whereas for Pope John, the renewal to be encouraged by the council would be in the form of “a new Pentecost,” for Pope Paul, it meant dialogue and perhaps even accommodation with the modern world.

The two emphases were not necessarily contradictory, but they did represent a shift. Pope Paul always said that he was more progressive than his predecessor and this shift – whether for good or ill – was one sign of that.

The two popes also took different approaches in their relationship with the council. Pope John happily gave the council the greatest possible freedom to find its own way. The new pope had a program and, as we will see, intervened directly in the council at several crucial points.

On the matter of Pope Paul’s interventions, he faced increasing pressure from the Curia to rein in the views of the council majority. The majority was often, according to historian Giuseppe Alberigo, described as hostile to the papacy and wishy-washy on doctrine. So, if the pope was progressive, that tendency was somewhat muted by his frequent contacts with his own Curia.


While the second session approved two documents – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Decree on Social Communications – and dealt with an important document on ecumenism, as well as other documents, its main work was on the Constitution on the Church.

At the first session, Pope John had removed the original document on the Church, De Ecclesia, from discussion after it had come under withering criticism. Although the document was to be revised and brought back, when the council fathers returned the next fall they were given a new document drafted by theologian Gerard Phillips that bore little resemblance to De Ecclesia.

The fathers left no doubt that they favoured Phillips’ document over De Ecclesia when on Oct. 1 they voted 2,231 to 43 to make Phillips’ document the basis for discussion.

That did not end the controversy, of course. For the council fathers engaged in intense debates on the nature of collegiality – the sharing of authority in the Church – and on the Virgin Mary before moving that document forward.

When, in a straw vote on five questions on Oct. 30, the council fathers overwhelmingly approved the notion that the college of bishops, united with the pope, enjoys “full and supreme power over the universal Church,” it was a landmark decision that irrevocably established the direction of Vatican II.


Alberigo said the beginning of the second session was, in effect, the third beginning of Vatican II. The first beginning was Pope John’s announcement in 1959 that a council would be held. That start was followed by an enormous preparation that developed 70 documents for the council, none of which were approved.

The second beginning was at the first session in 1962, which was followed by the bishops developing a common consciousness of what the council was and what it could achieve.

The third beginning was the real start of the council. A pope had been elected whose pontificate would last well beyond the end of Vatican II. As well, the bishops knew what they wanted to accomplish and they set out to bring their views into effect.

(Much of the information in this article came from chapters written by Alberto Melloni and Giuseppe Alberigo in History of Vatican II: Volume III, The Mature Council, edited by Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak.)