Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council as it is sometimes called, met from 1962 to 1965. It was the twenty-first ecumenical council since the first one took place back in 325 at Nicea. This latest council did not meet to address heresies as did early councils (Nicea and Arianism; Ephesus and Nestorianism; Chalcedon and Monophystism); rather, it was convened by Pope John XXIII to have the Church address concerns of the modern world. It was not intended to modernize the twothousand-year-old religion, but it was the goal of the Council Fathers (the pope and the bishops) to adapt and adopt the best of the modern world and use it to further the mission of the Church. The spirit of Vatican II was to preserve and maintain the same doctrines and dogmas of faith and morals which had been espoused for two millennia, but to use modern methods, means, and manners to convey that message.
No official teachings (doctrines) were changed, nor were they meant to be changed by the Second Vatican Council. Ancient disciplines like celibacy were not abandoned, either. Updating religious garb (called habits) was allowed, but total abandonment was never even suggested. The content of faith could not be and was not altered, but the way in which the faith was explained—from the vocabulary to the tools used to transmit the teachings—was updated to take advantage of the advances of progress. The laity was not to be clericalized and the clergy laicized, but each was called to play their respective role in the church.
The sixteen documents of Vatican II were primarily pastoral and spiritual; even the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) did not issue any new doctrines and it certainly did not change or repudiate previous ones. The Second Vatican Council merely gave a new perspective and viewpoint to teach and to understand what the Church has always taught and what she has always done, especially in her public worship of God (called Liturgy).
One obvious change stemming from Vatican II was the introduction of modifications in the Mass (the Divine, Sacred, or Eucharistic Liturgy as it sometimes called). The essence of the rituals for the Seven Sacraments were not changed, but the vernacular (common tongue or language) was introduced. Latin remained and still remains the standard, universal, and official language for worship and doctrine, hence all official documents and rituals are still printed in Latin. Countries can get authorization from the Vatican to translate the Mass and Sacraments into the vernacular, and that was done once the Council closed in 1965. While the Council Fathers never intended the complete and permanent removal of Latin from the public worship and prayer of the Western Church (the Byzantine Catholic church has always used Greek, Old Slavonic, and the vernacular), in practice, most American and European countries went 100 percent vernacular after Vatican II.
Since the reign of Pope John Paul the Great (1978–2005), the true spirit of Vatican II was reclaimed by the actual letter of Vatican II. Many innovators had tried to justify their liturgical abuses by claiming they were being faithful to the “spirit” of the law without being slaves to the “letter” of the law. On the contrary, John Paul showed that the intent of the Council Fathers can be found in the documents they issued. He also reminded people of the rich patrimony and heritage of the Church, from the Latin language to the perennial truth of Thomistic philosophy to the elegant and edifying beauty of Catholic art and music over the centuries for two millennia.
Abuses came not from Vatican II or because of Vatican II, but from those who distorted the intentions of the Council Fathers and the implementation of the documents. Optional celibacy for priests of the Latin rite, ordination of women, allowing artificial contraception by married couples, removing the obligation to attend Sunday Mass every week, forbidding Latin in any public worship, getting rid of devotions to the Virgin Mary and the saints, removing statues from churches, removing altar (communion) rails, moving tabernacles from the sanctuary, and forcing the priest to celebrate Mass facing the people were never required or mandated by Vatican II.
The rules on abstinence from meat were relaxed but not dissolved. Prior to Vatican II, it was a mortal sin to intentionally eat meat on any Friday of the year. After Vatican II, it was modified to permit the substitution of a work of mercy in place of the Friday abstinence, except on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, when abstinence from meat was still obligatory for baptized Catholics fourteen years of age or older. Fasting (eating only one full meal for the day with two smaller ones not equaling the larger one if combined and with no snacking between meals) applies only to adult Catholics from the ages of eighteen to fifty-nine on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Vatican II did encourage ecumenical dialogue with other religions. It did not suggest any kind of compromise regarding doctrine, nor did it seek to negotiate union by watering down or diluting church teaching. Dialogue was simply meant to open channels of communications between the leaders and followers of other religions with the leaders and members of the Catholic Church. Working together to protect the sanctity of life, to preserve moral values, to support marriage and the family, to help find ways to reduce poverty, crime, war, violence, hatred, and prejudice were the mutual goals sought by ecumenism. Vatican II did not call for doctrinal or moral compromise just to achieve ecumenical unity or consensus.
Extremists from both the far left (liberal) and far right (conservative) have distorted the message of Vatican II. Ultraconservatives have denied the validity of the Mass (called the Novus Ordo) and even Holy Orders since the end of the Council. They claim only the Tridentine Mass and priests ordained before 1965 are valid. There are even some ultra-extremists from the far right who deny there has been a valid pope since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. They are called “sede vacantists” (meaning “empty chair,” “chair” referring to the Chair of Saint Peter, which symbolizes the papacy).
There are also some mainstream Catholics who accept the validity of the Novus Ordo and all the Holy Orders (deacon, priest, and bishop) since Vatican II and who are in full communion with the church and follow Pope Benedict XVI, but who personally prefer the Latin Tridentine Mass. Pope John Paul the Great allowed them to fulfill their spiritual needs since 1980 when Ecclesia Dei allowed every bishop and diocese to provide the Latin Tridentine Mass to anyone who preferred it.
Ultraliberals have, on the other hand, denied doctrines like papal infallibility or have repudiated Humanae Vitae (1968), the encyclical of Paul VI which reiterated the condemnation of artificial contraception and abortion. They frequently ignore liturgical rubrics and promote egregious abuses in the Liturgy, from using illicit prayers to breaking Canon Law left and right. Both the ultra-left and ultra-right share one thing—they disobey Rome. Catholics who follow the doctrines, disciplines, teachings, and laws of the universal church are called orthodox (not capitalized), since the word means “correct” teaching. Those opposed to what the official Church teaches or legislates are considered “heterodox,” be they left or right.