Vatican Council II opened with a public session. In his address, John XXIII declared that the council was to meet the specific needs of the present-day Roman Catholic Church. He also emphasized that work must be undertaken to achieve unity with other Christians as well as with non-Christians. The council met for the first day of work on 13 October 1962 but adjourned after an hour. A group of progressive cardinals made a motion to adjourn so that national groups at the council had an opportunity to review the lists of names selected to serve on the ten commissions that would guide debate. The first session eventually debated issues relating to the structure and purpose of the liturgy, the church's relationship with the media, and a document calling for unity with Eastern churches. The ailing John XXIII closed the first session on 8 December 1962.
During the period between the sessions, the commissions met to draft documents to be voted on in the next session. John XXIII's death on 3 June 1963 ended all work until a new pope was elected. In his first message, Pope Paul VI, John XXIII's successor, promised that the council would continue and set the opening date for the second session for 29 September 1963.
In an opening address to the second session, the new pope outlined the four primary purposes of the council: to define the Church more fully, especially the role of bishops; to renew the Church; to restore unity among all Christians; and to "start a dialogue with contemporary men."
During the second session, the council's progress stalled over the document outlining the constitution of the Church. Among the questions raised by this document were the role of laypeople, the relationship with other churches, the importance of religious orders, and the relationship between church and state. Eventually work continued, and the council approved reforms of the liturgy, including the use of vernacular languages in the mass. A document on the use of modern communications media was also approved. The session debated a document stating that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, but the document was not approved before the second session closed on 4 December 1963.
The third session opened on 14 September 1964. Early in the session, the council approved a series of documents outlining the nature of the Church and the relationship between the Church and its people. On 23 September 1964, fifteen women took their seats as auditors of the council, the first women to ever participate in a Roman Catholic ecumenical council. The session continued the debate on ecumenical issues and the role of laypeople in the Church. During the debate over the position of the Church in the modern world, the pope told the council to remove discussion on artificial contraception from its agenda. A separate commission was studying the issue, and the pope did not want the council to vote in anticipation of the commission's decisions.
According to observers at the council, the third session was the most contentious. Before the session closed on 21 November 1964, the council approved documents on the Church in the modern world, ecumenism, and the relationship with the Eastern churches.
The fourth session opened on 14 September 1965. In his opening speech Paul VI announced that he would be visiting the United Nations (UN). He also announced his intention to establish a synod of bishops to advise him, part of an effort to increase collegiality within the Church hierarchy. The debate during the fourth session was wide-ranging. Documents were approved outlining religious freedom, the role of the Church in the modern world, and the relationship with non-Christian religions. The role of women in the Church was debated, as was the significance of Christian marriage. The law governing clerical celibacy was strengthened. An attempt to include a strong condemnation of communism was defeated. The council also emphasized the role of the common good in society and defended the rights of all individuals to enjoy access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, and basic social services, pronouncements that effectively expected capitalism to transcend the profit motive and promote the well-being of the entire community. The fourth session thus ended, and Vatican Council II officially closed on 8 December 1965.
John David Rausch Jr.
Muggeridge, Anne Roche. The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church. Revised and expanded ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990.; Rynne, Xavier. Vatican Council II. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.; Wiltgen, Ralph M. The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: The Unknown Council. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967.