The Second Vatican Council is arguably the most significant Ecumenical Council in the past two hundred years (Yes, that means there has been more than one). Just for the sake of review, the First Vatican Council was convened by Pope Pius IX on June 29, 1868 and opened on December 8, 1869. The council is best known for its dogmatic definition on Papal infallibility and was indefinitely suspended on October 20, 1870 by Pope Pius IX due to the Franco-Prussian War (The Kingdom of Italy captured and annexed the Papal States).
Of course, the Church had to wait for Blessed Pope John XXIII to convene and open the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. This Ecumenical Council was different than all previous councils in that it did not define or restate any dogmatic statements. The Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) is most notably remembered for:
- Expanding the use of the vernacular within the Sacred Liturgy
- Establishing the Word of God’s place and role in the Church
- Reflecting internally on her relation to her children
- Reflecting externally on her relation to the external world
- Expanding its communication in Ecumenical circles
The numerous documents that Vatican II produced has at times been used as weapons. Many act in accordance with the “spirit” of the Council which usually means that they are implementing what the Council “meant” even though they have never read the documents. The result, over forty years of nonsense and liturgical deviance that is only now beginning to self-correct.
I came across a graphic recently that helped me understand the internal logic of how the documents and the various themes relate to one another. While not perfect, I have not seen its match. Having read and studied the majority of the documents over the past twenty-years, I more and more appreciate the beauty and wisdom the Council Fathers were trying to implement. In the back of their minds lingered World War II and in the forefront of their minds was the changing needs of the twentieth century. With the birth and convergence of Dialectical Materialism and Modernism in the nineteenth century, the Council Fathers needed a renewed vision to provide the foundation for a new evangelism in the early twenty-first century. And so, through many years of deliberation, they promulgated 4 Constitutions, 9 Decrees and 3 Declarations. What is the difference in order of importance? Great question:
- Constitution -the most solemn form of a document issued by the Pope or a Council. It relates to important matters, e.g. changing the “matter & form” of a sacrament, major changes in universal law, etc. and makes new law which changes or abrogates existing law.
- Decree – is the most important legislative act a Curia can make. It requires the authorization of the Holy Father to make a change in Curial law.
- Declaration – typically is an interpretation of an existing law and it cannot make new law. Declarations may be general, for the whole Church or particular, for a particular person or church.
The following is a graphic provided by the Vatican II – Voice of the Church Web site. It helps organize the documents to know how they relate to each other. You might base your choice on what documents to read by relation rather than chronology. My only other encouragement is to actually read the documents (and those that helped explain them after the council) and not take the word of anyone acting in the “spirit of Vatican II”. Happy studying!
This diagram cannot easily be bettered, although a truer concept of the interlinking of themes and teachings might be a ‘network’. An important feature of the circular diagram is the clear presentation of the four ‘core’ documents, as the foundation for the rest. This diagram was first published in The Sower Vol 23 No 1, January 2002 and is reproduced with their kind permission. http://www.maryvale.ac.uk/
To read the Vatican II documents, go to the official Vatican site.