Vatican Councils

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Nineteenth-century painting of the First Vatican Council in 1870. The Art Archive/Museo Pio IX e Pinacoteca d'Arte Sacra Senigallia/Dagli Orti.

Vatican Councils

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

When most people refer to the Vatican Councils, they are usually thinking about the last two great Ecumenical Councils of the Roman Catholic Church. Depending on whom you talk to, there have been either seven or twenty-one of these councils held over the years.

Both Protestants and Catholics agree that there were seven great councils held between 325 CE and 787 CE : the councils of Nicea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680-681), and Nicea II (787). These were the meetings that managed to hammer out so much of what is considered to be "orthodox" Christian belief.

The Roman Catholic Church adds fourteen more official councils to this list. The last two of these are called Vatican Councils.

Vatican I met in 1869 and 1870. Its primary function was to deal with concerns about what was then called "modernism." Probably the most famous result of this council was its ruling that when the pope spoke ex cathedra, that is, "when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church," he spoke with the authority of papal infallibility. Up to then it had been assumed that all bishops, including the bishop of Rome, the pope, was under the rule of the whole church. But not after this. Now the power of infallibility rested in the papal office. When God spoke through the pope, the whole Catholic Church had to obey. (It comes as a surprise to many people that this famous doctrine is less than 150 years old.)

The council also passed resolutions regarding things like pantheism, materialism, and atheism. To no one's surprise, it condemned them all. It went on to talk about the new idea of evolution, reaffirming the role of God as Creator, and spoke out against "modernism" in general, calling it a "cancer in its ranks."

Vatican II was held from 1962 to 1965. That was the council that "modernized" the church. Latin was almost totally replaced by the vernacular. The extent of lay participation in worship was increased. Greater friendliness with non-Catholic religions was encouraged and a greater concern for social involvement begun. The altar was moved out from the wall so the priest now faced the congregation. Guitars were heard more and more. "Folk masses" became popular. "Dialogue sermons" became all the rage. Right in the middle of the homily, an antagonist would stand up in the midst of the congregation and question something, speaking for the people. Of course, the whole episode was carefully scripted, so the priest eventually managed to "convince" his opponent and, by doing so, win over the congregation. Everyone knew what was going on, but congregants enjoyed it just the same.

There were, of course, strenuous objections to all this.

"The Father looks like he's doing a cooking demonstration. It's not Mass anymore!"

"If God had wanted the service to be in English, He wouldn't have written the Bible in Latin!"

"I just don't feel like it's church anymore!"

Others said the church had changed forever and folks just had to deal with it. Time seemed to be on their side.

But a strange current has moved through Vatican waters since the early seventies. There are those who think the tide may be turning back toward old-style Catholicism. The present pope has proved to be very conservative. Loud, strident voices can be heard on both sides of the debate.

What will happen still remains to be seen. Liberal American Catholicism is a very different religion from that practiced in other countries. What does the future hold, especially since the great clergy sexual-molestation scandals of 2002 and 2003? The future is very much in doubt.

Vatican Councils


gatherings (conferences) of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which take place in the Vatican. The Vatican Council I, which according to the Catholic Church’s reckoning was the 20th ecumenical council, was held from Dec. 8, 1869, to Sept. 20, 1870. It was convoked by Pope Pius IX during the unification of Italy, when the papal territories were soon to be liquidated and the pope’s temporal rule was to come to an end. Its purpose was to consolidate the pope’s authority, his rule over the church, and the influence of the church itself. During the period of preconciliar preparation and at the council itself heated discussions took place over the question of the enunciation of papal infallibility as a dogma. The Jesuits were particularly insistent on the proclamation of this doctrine. The council adopted, first, a dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith, setting forth the bases of Catholic dogma (on god’s creation of the world out of nothing, on revelation, on the primacy of faith over reason and religion over science), thus confirming the decision of the Council of Trent and pronouncing an anathema against all that was at variance with Catholic dogma, including materialism, rationalism, and atheism; and second, it adopted the first dogmatic constitution of the Church of Christ confirming the primacy of the pope in the church and proclaiming the dogma of his infallibility in questions of faith and morals. Vatican Council I concluded its activities as a result of the occupation of Rome by Italian troops and the ensuing abolition of the papal state. Some of the Catholic theologians refused to recognize the new dogma of infallibility and took the step of forming the Old Catholic Church.

Vatican Council II (according to Catholic reckoning the 21st ecumenical council) met from 1962 to 1965, holding four sessions in all, each lasting two months. It was convoked by Pope John XXIII (its work was concluded under Pope Paul VI) for the “renewal” of the Catholic Church and for its adaptation to the changes in world conditions. Decisions were adopted concerning the relations within the Catholic Church, between Christian churches and between various religions, and on the attitude of the Catholic Church to the most important problems of the day. The council’s decisions on the first set of questions concerned mainly changes in the organization and rituals of the church in order to maintain and strengthen the influence of religion on the Catholic masses (conducting services in the local languages; introduction of local practices into the liturgy; the use of the press, films, and radio by the church; and so forth). Decisions on the second set of questions were aimed at the achievement of unity with other Christian churches. At the final meeting of the council Paul VI lifted the sentence of excommunication from the Catholic Church passed upon the patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 by the papal legate, which had led to the rift between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, while at the same time the anathema pronounced on the papal legate in that same year by the Orthodox Church was revoked in the Orthodox Cathedral in Constantinople. The decision of Vatican Council II also reflects the desire to collaborate with the non-Christian churches. Vatican Council II adopted the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), in which the main elements of the present social program of the Catholic Church are set forth and ideas of bourgeois reformism are advocated—that is, that the contradictions in capitalism must be reduced so that it can become stronger. At the same time the constitution states that “all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world,” and a dialogue with the Marxists is considered in positive terms. Bearing in mind the peoples’ will for peace, the Vatican condemned total war and called for the abandonment of the armaments race and for the settlement of international disputes through negotiation. The heated controversies that took place between the so-called innovators and conservatives on present-day problems and on the question of the adaption of the Catholic Church to the changes in the international situation were reflected in the decisions of Vatican Council II, which bear the marks of compromise and inconsistency.


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