Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Vatican II - The Historical Context

by Arthur Wells

To understand both Vatican I (1869-71) and Vatican II (1962-65) it is important to know something of the General or Ecumenical Councils of the church over the past several hundred years. The Rev. Professor Norman Tanner SJ classifies the modern era as beginning with the Council of Trent. This present essay is a commentary on and recommendation of his The Councils of the Church - A Short History [1]. Professor Tanner has given generous permission for substantial sections of his work to be quoted, but approval from the publisher still is awaited, so only limited quotations from his A Short History may be offered now.

The Council of Trent: 1545-1563

Martin Luther was not the only—then Catholic—theologian to have fallen out with ecclesiastical authority. To settle concerns about indulgences he first asked for a general council and then also invoked the importance of greater reference to the Bible. Despite the urging of the Emperor Charles V in favour of a Council, the authorities dithered and it was some thirty years since the initial dispute in 1517 that the Council of Trent met in 1545. By then seemingly irreparable damage had been done which lasted some four hundred years.

Luther's appeal to the Bible had immense significance for Christianity in the four centuries between Trent and Vatican II. The Reformers' Sola Scriptura was less than fair to the eventual Tridentine decree, as Tanner points out (p.79) but, nevertheless, the counterbalancing result in the Catholic Church was a tilt to tradition, which was only corrected at Vatican II. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum of 1965 made clear that the source of Revelation was neither solely Scripture nor tradition, but Christ himself. Tanner concludes his comments on Trent in his book with:

Although the council in a sense sharpened and prolonged the Reformation divisions, it preserved important points in the Christian tradition and will, hopefully, benefit and enrich reunion between churches in the end. (p.87)

Vatican I: 1869-1870

When the pontificate of Pius IX began in 1846, little review of Roman Catholic theology beyond Trent seemed necessary. However, much had changed in the world by the nineteenth century so that a review was, in fact needed. If the world had changed, that same world was the ambience and the context in which Christians lived. It was not to be ignored. The changes since Trent had included the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, one of the forces bringing vast social and economic changes, and then not least, Darwin's On the Origin of Species was and remains deeply significant. The theory of evolution was one of the triggers for the expansion of Biblical criticism, which Tanner explains, together with the questioning of Revelation, accompanied as it was by the further rise of secularism. Liberalism, as then understood, was condemned, with much else, in Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors. Tanner gives an extremely valuable treatment of Papal infallibility and its definition. But the First Vatican Council was short lived because of urgent Italian and French political reasons and it was abandoned rather than closed. The short-hand of history records that it was dominated by the definition of papal infallibility, the nature of which is often widely misunderstood, as Tanner points out. Once again, the whole work is recommended but, for this website purposes, the author's concluding sentence provides the context for understanding the continuity between Vatican I and Vatican II:

The theology [of Vatican I] is skewed in favour of the papacy and so required complementing by consideration of other members of the church: it is providential that almost a century of further reflection elapsed before this work was accomplished [in Vatican II]. (p.96)

Vatican II : 1962-1965

Many details of the Second Vatican Council are covered elsewhere in the site by men who were there, not least, of course, by Bishop Butler himself. As noted, he was one of the major figures in the select series of only 24 Profiles of Men who Made the Council [2]. But as a historian, Professor Tanner has the advantage of the perspective of time and access to the many records. His considered judgement is:

Vatican II is a remarkable Council. In recent years I have had the privilege of giving many lectures on the councils of the church, and Vatican II appears ever more extraordinary. Indeed for all the problems in the Church today, which at times seem formidable, we are nevertheless the most fortunate Christians ever because we are the only generation to have lived in the light of this great Council. (p.96)

Tanner described the handover, as it were, after John's death in 1963, of the Second Vatican Council to Paul VI and the confirmation that Vatican II would continue. It was a new council and not a continuation of Vatican I. He listed the various decrees which were the fruit of the Council's work. These fundamental facts are readily available and we show a valuable diagram of the documents. The first decree to be promulgated was that on Liturgy. It is the subject most prominent to the ordinary Christian and Tanner offers substantial detail. Discussions on other important issues follow, and of particular importance are his references to the decree on the Church: a subject of pivotal significance to the whole Council. A decree on the Church had been drafted before the council by one of the preparatory commissions but was rejected soon after the opening of the Council. Tanner emphasises the wide-ranging changes in the concept of understanding Church. For example:

Instead of beginning with the Pope and working downwards, the approach is humbler and more 'from below'. The church is defined primarily as a mystery and as the People of God in the first two chapters. The hierarchical church of pope and bishops is there, in chapter 3, but it comes after the first two chapters... (p.103)

Tanner explains a certain shifting to and fro in the debates between a concentration on 'mystery' and certain practical necessities of a human organisation needed for the service of the world. But overall, he concludes, much as Butler had done 40 years earlier:

A good result, however, was that the decree itself received the almost unanimous approval of the council. (p.105)

That decree was given the most significant designation of Dogmatic Constitution. The only other decree granted the title of 'dogmatic' was that on Scripture as the Word of God Dei Verbum and Butler had felt that the latter constitution was also foundational to the Council. There are, however, many other documents, which in the forty years since the Council, the importance of which has come to the fore. Among them are those on Ecumenism, on Religious Freedom and on Other Faiths.

Conclusion and The Future

It should be recalled that in his Short History Professor Tanner is writing of all twenty-one Councils in the history of the Christian Church which are the subject of his book. In regard to the conciliar process he writes:

It is noticeable that the two most serious schisms in the church's history—between the eastern and western branches in the eleventh century and that resulting from the Reformation in the sixteenth century—occurred in the absence of councils, not as a result of them. (p.115)

Within a page of the end of his slim, but valuable book, Tanner seems, at the millennium, to reach a conclusion which, it can be inferred, prompted Blessed Pope John, in 1959, to convene Vatican II and in which the vast majority of Council Fathers concurred:

A more conciliar papacy may be an apposite suggestion: both council and pope would be strengthened, not weakened by fuller collaboration. (p.117).


[1]  The Councils of the Church - A Short History, Norman P Tanner, Crossroad, New York 2001

[2]  Men Who Made the Council, Valentine Rice, University of Notre Dame Press, 1965. (Dom Christopher Butler was the fifteenth of the 24 men described.)