A - Thanks for your great question. Let me warn you that while my answer may be longer than most of them on this blog, it won't cover everything you need to know about Vatican II.
Now, whenever I talk about Vatican II with a group of people I begin by asking them what Vatican II did. They almost universally respond by talking about the changes in the liturgy. While these are the most visible changes, they are not the most important things to come from Vatican II. Let me explain.
Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. All other councils were called because of some crisis or problem that the Church needed to address. For instance, many heresies (arianism, gnosticism, etc.) were addressed by proclaiming what is orthodox ("right teaching") through the councils.
Vatican II was different because the Church didn't need to address any major crisis. It was called by John XXIII more as a pastoral council than doctrinal. Now, that doesn't mean it didn't proclaim doctrine, but rather that it was aimed more at helping Catholic live out those teachings. It's main purpose was to help apply the truths of Christ to modern-day life.
When John XXIII called the Council, the Church was in shock. 'Why' was the question.
John XXIII’s theme for the Council was put forward in a document to open the first session. (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia) “Mother Church Rejoices”. The Church is called to teach, govern and sanctify. But, unlike most other councils of the Church, there was no crisis in doctrine that proceeded it. There was also no need for dogmatic definitions. What the Church needed was for to apply the teachings the Church already had to the present and foreseeable future.
So, he wanted the Church to examine itself and ask the question of “what do we need to do to make our faith deeper and more lively.”
There was a deep need to have doctrine stated in a relevant way, but in a way that did not change what was being taught. It's formulation and presentation needed updating without leaving any truth behind.
John XXIII's vision of the council was:
1 - Awareness - The Church is aware of itself
2 - Renewal - After we become aware we reform (note you cannot reform what you don’t know about)
3 - Dialogue - Dialogue with the world at large.
There are four major documents called Constitutions. One is on the liturgy, one is on the Church, one is on Revelation, and the last is on The Church in the Modern World. These four documents are the most important. But, there are others that are very important as well. Including documents on religious freedom, the laity, and ecumenism (unity of Christianity).
Paul VI became pope during the council. Later, after the council, John Paul II became pope. During the implementation of the council, there was one major question - how do we go about implementing the teachings in the council?
Some saw in Vatican II an opportunity to "update" the Church's doctrine. They wanted the Church to change the moral teachings on contraception, sex, etc. They also wanted doctrines such as the all-male priesthood, etc to change.
This caused an upheaval and confusion in the Church that has lasted until our day. Every parish and diocese was greatly effected by this confusion. Many people left the Church, not knowing what was going on, others simply drifted along. During this time religious education was very poor and generations of Catholics since have been poorly formed, including my own generation.
On the bright side, the Church has begun to correctly implement the teachings of Vatican II more recently. There has been a re-capturing of the truth found in the teachings of Vatican II and a proper balance to it all. We are doing much better at educating the people and I believe a corner has been turned. While we still have a long way to go, there is great reason to be hopeful that we are headed in the right direction.
Now, what specifically did Vatican II teach? Well, to get it all I urge you to pick up the documents and read them. You can buy bo0ks and commentaries on Vatican II or you can even get them from the internet. Here is the Vatican's website with all 16 documents.
Some of the major themes / teachings include:
- Aggiornamento - this is a word that means to "bring up to date". This doesn't mean the Church's doctrine changes, but how we teach, communicate, and apply it might. It can be seen as a way of trying to read the signs of the times and adjust where we are willing and able to.
- Ressourcement - this word means a "return to the sources". The Council Fathers balanced the updating with a retrieval of some of the lost practices of the early Church. RCIA is a fruit of this effort.
- The universal call to holiness - everyone is called to perfection in the spiritual life.
- Renewal in the Church - it begins by understanding God and the nature of the Church as well as our imperfection.
- Changes in liturgy - the liturgy is our source and summit of the spiritual life.
- Dialogue with the world - when we engage the world and culture with the truth of Christ, we can help renew both.
- Call for the laity to "reform the temporal order".
Some of the major changes to the liturgy include:
- Using the vernacular (language of the people)
- The priest facing the people during the Eucharistic prayer
- The call to "active participation" of the entire congregation (though some mis-interpreted this as a call to change many things not intended to be changed).
- Call to catechize more about the liturgy to help the congregation grow in understanding of the action of the liturgy and therefore faith in Christ.
- Greater use of Scripture. We have an extra reading since Vatican II.
Some of the other topics in the documents include:
- social life
- political community
- moral basis of authority
- Eastern Rite Catholic Churches
- Office of Bishops
- Priestly formation
- Christian Education
- Non-Christian Religions Laity
- Religious liberty