Vatican II produced sixteen documents, which are divided into three separate categories: four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations. Theoretically these categories are in descending order of significance, but both the debates at the council and the past fifty years of history suggest that this precedence is not always followed. Viewing the documents after nearly fifty years of debate and study shows what has been most significant for the progress of the church.
“The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” was the document that initiated changes that Catholics experience in the celebration of the sacraments, but most especially the Eucharist. “The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” provides insight into contemporary issues and the Church's response. “The Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation” was instrumental in the promotion of Biblical scholarship. “The Decree on Ecumenism” and “The Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” provided the base for religious dialogue among peoples of faith. “The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People” helped the laity to understand their responsibility as members of the church. Lastly, “The Declaration on Religious Liberty,” the only document with any significant input from American bishops, verified the trend in modern governments to remove coercive means with respect to religion in the governance of their nations.
Key Texts and Practical Effects
The sixteen documents of Vatican II were wide-ranging in their orientation, but specific texts and ideas brought about noticeable and practical effects in the life of everyday Roman Catholics. The breadth of topics addressed by the council was significant. The documents speak of the church as the “People of God,” emphasize the centrality of the Eucharist, uphold the primacy of Scripture, promote ecclesial and theological pluralism, encourage the practice of ecumenism, and demonstrate concern for secular human values such as justice and peace.
Why was the exodus of priests and religious so precipitous at this time?
First, a more accepting society that no longer viewed priesthood and religious life as “better” or “special” made such a departure easier. Second, the fact that people could choose ministry but simultaneously choose marriage and family made the vocation of priesthood and/or religious life less attractive.
This wide range of topics is supported by a series of important ideas that allow the church to engage the modern world. Collegiality — the idea that the bishops and pope work as a collective episcopal college — was endorsed and was a concept of fundamental importance at the Council of Constance. It is noteworthy that the documents say that the unique Church of Christ “subsists in” rather than “is” the Roman Catholic Church. Religious freedom, autonomy of national churches and their rites, condemnation of anti-Semitism and war, and the endorsement of dual responsibilities of marriage, namely children and love, are other significant ideas in the documents that supported the council's broad orientation.
The council documents, or those generated as a result of them, brought about many practical effects that are daily visible. Today, Roman Catholics experience the sacraments, especially Mass, celebrated in the vernacular language. Mass is often concelebrated, with more than one priest present; the Eucharist is often received under both species of bread and wine. The return of a married diaconate (see Chapter 17) is a direct result of Vatican II. Rules associated with the practice of intercommunion (see Chapter 11), establishment of national episcopal conferences, and fostering of social justice were promoted by the council.