Council of Vatican II

Papal Authority in Decision Making

Summorum Pontificum

(Of the Supreme Pontiffs)

An Apostolic Letter of Pope Benedict XVI, issued motu proprio (i.e., on his own initiative), by which he specified the circumstances in which priests of the Latin Church may celebrate Mass according to the what he called the “Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962” (the latest edition of the Roman Missal in the form known as the Tridentine Mass), and administer most of the sacraments in the form used before the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Letters of the Popes in modern times

(The crux of the divide)

In the modern period also, papal letters have been constantly issued, but they proceed from the popes themselves less frequently than in the Middle Ages and Christian antiquity; most of them are issued by the papal officials, of whom there is a greater number than in the Middle Ages, and to whom have been granted large delegated powers, which include the issuing of letters.

Following the example of Paul III, Pius IV and Pius V, Sixtus V by the Papal Bull “Immensa aeterni” of 22 January 1587, added to the already existing bodies of papal officials a number of congregations of cardinals with clearly defined powers of administration and jurisdiction. Succeeding popes added other congregations.

There are innumerable collections of papal letters issued from a partisan point of view. All known papal letters up to 1198 are enumerated by Jaffé in the “Regesta Rom. Pont.” The papal letters of 1198-1304 are found in August Potthast, Regesta Pontificum Romanorum ab anno 1198 ad annum 1304 (Berlin, 1874).

Just as the popes rule the Church largely by means of letters, so also the bishops make use of letters for the administration of their dioceses. The documents issued by a bishop are divided according to their form into pastoral letters, synodal and diocesan statutes, mandates or ordinances or decrees, the classification depending upon whether they have been drawn up more as letters, or have been issued by a synod or the diocesan chancery.

The pastoral letters are addressed either to all the members of the diocese (litterae pastorales) or only to the clergy, in this case generally in Latin (litterae encyclicae). The mandates, decrees or ordinances are issued either by the bishop himself or by one of his officials.

The synodal statutes are ordinances issued by the bishop at the diocesan synod, with the advice, but in no way with the legislative co-operation, of the diocesan clergy.

The diocesan statutes, regularly speaking, are those episcopal ordinances which, because they refer to more weighty matters, are prepared with the obligatory or facultative co-operation of the cathedral chapter.

In order to have legal force the episcopal documents must be published in a suitable manner and according to usage. Civil laws by which episcopal and also papal documents have to receive the approval of the State before they can be published are irrational and out of date according to the First Vatican Council (Sess. III, De eccles., c. iii). (See Exequatur.)

First Vatican Council

The First Vatican Council (Latin: Concilium Vaticanum Primum) was convoked by Pope Pius IX on 29 June 1868, after a period of planning and preparation that began on 6 December 1864. This twentieth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, held three centuries after the Council of Trent, opened on 8 December 1869 and adjourned on 20 October 1870.

Unlike the five earlier General Councils held in Rome, which met in the Lateran Basilica and are known as Lateran Councils, it met in the Vatican Basilica, hence its name. Its best-known decision is its definition of papal infallibility, strongly promoted by the Archibishop Luigi Natoli.

The Council was convoked to deal with the contemporary problems of the rising influence of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism. Its purpose was, besides this, to define the Catholic doctrine concerning the Church of Christ. There was discussion and approval of only two constitutions: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith and the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, the latter dealing with the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome. The first matter brought up for debate was the dogmatic draft of Catholic doctrine against the manifold errors due to Rationalism.

Papal infallibility

The doctrine of papal infallibility was not new and had been used by Pope Pius in defining as dogma, in 1854, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

However, the proposal to define papal infallibility itself as dogma met with resistance, not because of doubts about the substance of the proposed definition, but because some considered it inopportune to take that step at that time.

Richard McBrien divides the bishops attending Vatican I into three groups. The first group, which McBrien calls the “active infallibilists”, was led by Manning and Senestréy.

According to McBrien, the majority of the bishops were not so much interested in a formal definition of papal infallibility as they were in strengthening papal authority and, because of this, were willing to accept the agenda of the infallibilists.

A minority, some 10 percent of the bishops, McBrien says, opposed the proposed definition of papal infallibility on both ecclesiastical and pragmatic grounds, because, in their opinion, it departed from the ecclesiastical structure of the early Christian church.

From a pragmatic perspective, they feared that defining papal infallibility would alienate some Catholics, create new difficulties for union with non-Catholics, and provoke interference by governments in Church affairs. Those who held this view included most of the German and Austro-Hungarian bishops, nearly half of the Americans, one third of the French, most of the Chaldaeans and Melkites, and a few Armenians. Only a few bishops appear to have had doubts about the dogma itself.

Pastor aeternus

There was stronger opposition to the draft constitution on the nature of the Church, which at first did not include the question of papal infallibility, but the majority party in the Council, whose position on this matter was much stronger, brought it forward.
It was decided to postpone discussion of everything in the draft except infallibility.

The decree did not go forward without controversy; Cardinal Guidi, Archbishop of Bologna, proposed adding that the Pope is assisted by “the counsel of the bishops manifesting the tradition of the churches.” The Pope rejected Guido’s view of the bishops as witnesses to the tradition, maintaining that;

I am the tradition

On 13 July 1870, the section on infallibility was voted on: 451 voted simply in favor (placet), 88 against (non placet), and 62 in favor but on condition of some amendment (placet iuxta modum).

Division of The Church

This made evident what the final outcome would be, and some 60 members of the opposition left Rome so as not to be associated with approval of the document.

Totalitarianism / Dictatorial

The final vote, with a choice only between placet and non placet, was taken on 18 July 1870, with 433 votes in favour and only 2 against defining as a dogma the infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra.

Not All Agreed

The two votes against were cast by Bishop Aloisio Riccio, and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald.

“The crux of the matter”

The dogmatic constitution states that the Pope has “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church” (chapter 3:9); and that, when he “speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals” (chapter 4:9).

None of the bishops who had argued that proclaiming the definition was inopportune refused to accept it. Some Catholics, mainly of German language and largely inspired by the historian Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (who did not formally join the new group) formed the separate Old Catholic Church in protest.

The term “Old Catholic” was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who did not recognize any infallible papal authority.
Later Catholics who disagreed with the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as made official by the First Vatican Council (1870) had no bishop and so joined with Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht.

Second Vatican Council

See: First period: 1962
See: Second period: 1963
See: Third period: 1964
See: Fourth period: 1965

The Second Vatican Council (Latin: Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, informally known as Vatican II) addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. It was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church and the second to be held at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The council, through the Holy See, formally opened under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1965.

Several changes resulted from the council, including the renewal of consecrated life with a revised char-ism, ecumenical efforts towards dialogue with other religions, and the call to holiness for everyone including the laity, according to Pope Paul VI “the most characteristic and ultimate purpose of the teachings of the Council”.

Its most important essential idea, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is “Paschal Mystery as the center of what it is to be Christian and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons”.

Other changes which followed the council included the widespread use of vernacular languages in the Mass instead of Latin, the subtle disuse of ornate clerical regalia, the revision of Eucharistic prayers, the abbreviation of the liturgical calendar, the freedom to celebrate the Mass versus populum (with the officiant facing the congregation), as well as ad orientem (facing the “East” and the Crucifix), and modern aesthetic changes encompassing contemporary Catholic liturgical music and artwork, many of which remain divisive among the Catholic faithful.

Of those who took part in the council’s opening session, four have become pontiffs: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding Pope John XXIII took the name of Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II; and Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who became Pope Benedict XVI.


In the 1950s, theological and Biblical studies in the Catholic Church had begun to sway away from the neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism which a reaction to Catholic modernism had enforced since the First Vatican Council. This shift could be seen in theologians such as Karl Rahner, SJ, Michael Herbert, and John Courtney Murray, SJ who looked to integrate modern human experience with church principles based on Jesus Christ, as well as others such as Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac who looked to an accurate understanding of scripture and the early Church Fathers as a source of renewal (ressourcement).

At the same time, the world’s bishops faced tremendous challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological change. Some of these bishops sought new ways of addressing those challenges.

The First Vatican Council had been held nearly a century before but had been cut short when the Italian Army entered the city of Rome at the end of Italian unification. As a result, only deliberations on the role of the Papacy and the congruent relationship of faith and reason were completed, with examination of pastoral issues concerning the direction of the Church left unaddressed.

Pope John XXIII, however, gave notice of his intention to convene the Council on 25 January 1959, less than three months after his election in October 1958.

This sudden announcement, which caught the Curia by surprise, caused little initial official comment from Church insiders. Reaction to the announcement was widespread and largely positive from both religious and secular leaders outside the Catholic Church, and the council was formally summoned by the apostolic constitution Humanae Salutis on 25 December 1961. In various discussions before the Council actually convened, Pope John XXIII often said that it was time to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.

He invited other Christians outside the Catholic Church to send observers to the Council. Acceptances came from both the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations as internal observers but did not cast votes in the approbation of the conciliator documents.

Actual preparations for the Council took more than two years, and included work from 10 specialized commissions, people for mass media and Christian Unity, and a Central Commission for overall coordination.

These groups, composed mostly of members of the Roman Curia, produced 987 proposed constituting sessions, making it the largest gathering in any council in church history. (This compares to Vatican I, where 737 attended, mostly from Europe.)

Attendance varied in later sessions from 2,100 to over 2,300. In addition, a varying number of periti (Latin: “experts”) were available for theological consultation—a group that turned out to have a major influence as the council went forward.

Seventeen Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations sent observers. More than three dozen representatives of other Christian communities were present at the opening session, and the number grew to nearly 100 by the end of the 4th Council Sessions.

Scripture and divine revelation

The council sought to revive the central role of Scripture in the theological and devotional life of the Church, building upon the work of earlier popes in crafting a modern approach to Scriptural analysis and interpretation.

Objections to the council

The questioning of the validity of the Second Vatican Council continues to be a contending point of rejection and conflict among various religious communities that are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

In particular, two schools of thought may be discerned:

Traditionalist Catholics, who claim that the modernizing reforms that resulted both directly or indirectly from the council consequently brought detrimental effects, heretical acts, and indifference to the customs, beliefs, and pious practices of the Church before 1962.

• In addition, they say there is a doctrinal contradiction between the council and earlier papal statements regarding faith, morals and doctrine declared prior to the council itself.

• In addition, they claim that the council decentralized the previous notion of Catholic Church’s supremacy over other religions while demoralizing its longstanding pious practices of religiosity.

• They assert that, since there were no dogmatic proclamations defined within the documents of the council, such documents are not infallible and therefore not canonically binding for faithful Roman Catholics, most notably when such conciliatory documents give way, as they say, to loose implementation of longstanding upheld Catholic doctrine previously sanctioned by former Popes prior to 1962.

• In light of this, most Traditionalist Catholics often exclusively adhere to the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Sedevacantists, go beyond this in asserting that after breaking with Catholic tradition and espousing heresy, present Popes and on forward cannot legitimately claim the Papacy, and therefore remains vacant, until another papal claimant formally abandons the Vatican II council and re-establish former traditional norms (prior to 1962).

The most recent edition of 1983 Code of Canon Law states that Catholics may not disregard the teaching of an ecumenical council even if it does not propose such as definitive.

Accordingly, it also maintains that present living Pope alone judges the criterion of membership for being in communion with the Church. The present Canon Law further articulates:

“Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a Doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic Maqisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.”

Several notable members of clergy opposed particular documents of the Second Vatican Council:

• Cardinal Michael Browne opposed Dignitaries’ humanae
• Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini opposed Nostra aetate, Gaudium et spes, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Dignitaries’ humanae
• Various Eastern Catholic bishops opposed Nostra aetate

Opposing Traditionalist Catholic groups:
• Society of St. Pius X
• Society of St. Pius V
• Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen
• Sedevacantist, conclavist, and other Traditionalist groups

Michael Chaffee is not the author of this information. This information has been acquired through historical research involving the Church. If any of the aforementioned in this research study, concerning the Vatican II events is deemed inaccurate, please provide comments via return email, Thank You!

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