PRV2: Conciliar Context

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Protestant Reactions to Vatican II.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Before examining any specific reactions to Vatican II, we must negotiate several historical and methodological problems. The first is the issue of historical placement. Though nearly fifty years removed from the closing of the council, the chronological proximity of this study to the council itself urges a continual, cautioned examination of Vatican II. As Morgan Patterson rightly reminds us, to offer a final verdict on the council so near in time to council could be viewed as “presumptuous, not to say a hazardous exercise. Impressions lack time to be seasoned, documents are still being analyzed, and the event has not receded enough to give necessary perspective…. In the end, only history can be the final commentator on the impact and significance of this epochal event.”[1] Thus the scope and conclusions of this project are necessarily tempered due to their proximity to the events of Vatican II.

A second question involves issue of terminology. Despite the fairly common use of the term “Catholic” as a single identifier representing a homogeneous body of the faithful, there exists within Roman Catholicism a great deal of diverse and differing theologies. Protestantism, of course, suffers from the same problem, as there exists no single representative for all of (or even most of) the incredible range of Christians and institutions identified in some way as Protestant. Therefore, in this study use of the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” should be understood as broad generalizations and references to church traditions commonly associated with either label, and that these generalization do not claim to reflect all individual and nuanced beliefs or positions contained within the overall scope of these terms.

A third problem of this study involves the contrasts between rhetorical portrayals of a document or event and actual experiences deriving from those documents or events. As Martin Marty notes, the rhetoric of Vatican II itself and the actual on-the-ground results within Roman Catholicism have at times indeed been rather different issues.[2] Responses to Vatican II have often involved just as much reaction to contemporary forms of Catholicism as they have entailed specific reactions to the historical council. While the primary focus of this paper involves considerations of the official positions of the council, we also consider responses to the practical implementations where it remains necessary to do so.

George Weigel
George Weigel

Fourth, we note the historical uniqueness of Vatican II, as the council differed from each of the twenty previous Roman Catholic councils by not providing an authoritative interpretation of the council’s proceedings. As George Weigel notes, Vatican II “defined no dogmas, condemned no heresies (or heretics), commissioned no catechism, wrote no new canons into the law of the Church.”[3] What the Council did provide, however, was sixteen documents of varying magisterial authority, but without a dogmatic set of lenses through which to view those documents. Thus for the past fifty years, the Vatican-II-as-rupture-with-the-past contingent has contended with the Vatican-II-as-development-of-the-authoritative-tradition-of-the-Church school of thought.[4] Each of these four concerns problematize any reaction to Vatican II, especially Protestant reactions, and thus we offer any conclusions with acknowledgement of these considerations.

Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI

Finally, before delving into reactions to Vatican II, it seems appropriate to contextual these reactions within a brief history of the council itself. The Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum was formally opened on October 11, 1962 by Pope John XXIII and was closed December 8, 1965 by Pope Paul VI. John XXIII, though not overseeing the entirety of the council, continues to be viewed as the primary tone-setter for the entire council, with his emphasis on the themes of renewal of the Church and reunion with separated Christian brethren.[5] Thomas Howard notes that these themes are often referenced as aggiornamento (Italian for dialogue with the modern world) and ressourcement (French for returning to older sources for contemporary thinking).[6] Perhaps Vatican II’s greatest legacy was its attempt to bring traditional and progressive Catholics together through these two concepts, and during the early portions of the council these two visions often thought of themselves as collaborators, two dimensions of the same program.[7] However, the aggiornamento vision eventually became understood within the context of accommodation rather than dialogue, and a rift between the two visions reopened, a divide which continues to influence the Church even today.[8]

Some scholars, such as Duncan and Kung, argue that the Catholic Church never actually contained a progressive party hoping to modernize the Church, but instead offered two differing visions of a return to the “medieval-counterreformation-antimodernist image” of the papacy and the Church.[9] However, most perspectives on the council reject this view and argue that the real concern of the council was an appropriate engagement with modernism that took two differing forms.[10] By the time Vatican II was closed on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1965, the council had produced sixteen significant documents. These included four constitutions on Divine Revelation, the Church, the Church in the Modern World, and the Sacred Liturgy; nine decrees including those on missionary activity, the training of priests, Oriental Catholic Churches, the renewal of religious life, the life and ministry of priests, and ecumenicism; and three declarations on religious liberty, Christian education, and the relationship of the Church with non-Christian religions.[11]


[1] Patterson, W. Morgan. “A Baptist Historian Views Vatican II.” Baptist History and Heritage. Volume 1, Issue 2. 1966. Electronic. 8. [2] Marty, Martin. “A Great Awakening: A Protestant Historian Recalls Vatican II.” Electronic. 2012. Non-Paginated. [3] Weigel, George, “A Papal Canonization Doubleheader.” First Things. 2013. Electronic. Non-Paginated. [4] Ibid. [5] Patterson, 7. [6] Howard, Thomas Albert. “Two Anniversaries: Vatican II and the 95 Theses.” The Anxious Bench. October 15, 2012. Electronic. Non-Paginated. [7] Lindbeck, George. “Re-Viewing Vatican II: An Interview with George Lindbeck.” Edited by Geroge Weigel. First Things. December 1994. Electronic. Non-Paginated. [8] Ibid. [9] Duncan, quoting Kung, 2. [10] Lindbeck. [11] The Documents of Vatican II. Edited Walter Abbott. Translated Joseph Gallagher. New York, Guild Press. 1966. Print.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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