Vatican Councils

Two Roman Catholic Church councils that helped to set doctrine for the Church in the modern era. They were 20th and 21st such meetings in the history of the Church in a series dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. The first Vatican Council took place in 1869 and 1870, called together by Pope Pius IX. It produced two doctrinal constitutions. The first, Dei Filius, provided a shortened but definitive statement on the Church’s view of the relationship between faith and reason. The second, Pastor Aeternus, was concerned with the authority of the popes. It decreed that the pope, as the successor to Saint Peter, had full authority over the entire Church, including its pastoral and teaching functions. The constitution also established the principle of papal infallibility, which stated that the pope’s pronouncements are free from error when he speaks on matters concerning faith or morals as they pertain to the entire Church. Pastor Aeternus was very controversial, but it passed despite strong resistance. The council was disbanded when Italian troops occupied Rome in 1870 as part of the process of Italian political unification, although it was never formally closed by church officials.

The Second Vatican Council lasted from 1962 to 1965 It was begun by the reforming Pope John XXIII and, after his death, concluded under Pope Paul VI. It resulted in the most substantial changes to the Church since the Council of Trent in the 1500s, and its observers included leading figures from other Christian denominations. The Second Council, or Vatican II as it is commonly known, produced five particularly important constitutions refining or reforming central Church functions or attitudes. The Constitution on the Church grounded the organization of the Church in scriptur al and theological rather than legalistic terms and gave renewed authority to the bishops. The Constitution on Divine Revelation reaffirmed the importance of holy scripture as the basis for salvation but also noted the importance of Roman Catholic teachings as another source of the divine word. It also further opened both to scholarly examination and criticism. The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World dealt with the Church’s attitudes toward such worldly matters as marriage, war, and economic development, which were considered to be undergoing great and rapid changes at the time and which many believed the Church must adapt to.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy dealt with ritual practices, and provided means for greater participation in the Mass and other rituals by laypeople. It also authorized more use of vernacular languages in rites, a matter particularly impor tant in the nonEuropean world. The Decree on Ecumenism was concerned with the Church’s attitudes toward other Christians, and it promulgated both a vision of religious freedom among Christians and proposals for reunification, particularly between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Aside from these important statements, Vatican II concerned itself with such matters as the education of priests, missionary work, and the attitude of the Church toward non-Christians.

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