The purpose of this article is to provide a high-level introduction to the 16 Vatican II documents. We will accomplish this by defining the three categories the documents fit within and giving you access to the video presentation that overview each document, along with link to the text of the documents.
At the end of each of the ecumenical councils, documents are produced explaining the new teaching the council fathers believed the Holy Spirit was giving to the Church.
Vatican II was different that the previous 20 councils in that there were no new teachings were offer because the Holy Spirit inspired Saint John XXIII to call Vatican II because the time for reform — returning to the original form of Christ Jesus — had come to the Church. The previous councils were called to address a problem in the Church.
Video Introduction to the Documents
The 16 Vatican II documents are divided among:
- 4 Apostolic Constitutions
- 9 Decrees
- 3 Declarations
Below is an introduction to each of the document types, along with links to the text of the documents and links to the remain three part of that video episode.
The Vatican II documents with the highest level of authority and importance are the four Apostolic Constitutions. They are called apostolic because they come from the successors of the apostles (the bishops) and they are called constitutions because they define the structure, composition, physical makeup, and nature of the topics they address.
Apostolic Constitutions are on par with Code of Canon Law, which are the rules by which we run the Church.
Let me take a moment to address rules and the Church as we are often criticized as an institution of oppressive rules. Anytime you have more than a two people working together, rules are needed. Successful marriages have rules; even the smallest non-affiliated Protestant church has rules of conduct. Canon Law has been developed since the Council of Jerusalem(1) to help guide us with standards of conduct.
Assent of Faith
Apostolic Constitutions are binding on all members of the Church. In Church-speak, we are required to give our assent of faith to these documents, which means we are to approach them with the attitude to trying to understanding how to apply their teaching to our lives rather than approaching them with the attitude that this document isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.
Probably the most familiar Apostolic Constitution for you is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Near the front of the Catechism is the apostolic letter Saint John Paul II wrote introducing Fidei Depositum, which is the incipit for the Catechism. Saint John Paul II tells us that the Catechism requires our assent of faith because it is the “sure norm” for accomplishing “the principal task entrusted to the [Vatican II Council Fathers] by [Saint] John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will.”
Apostolic Constitutions are considered infallible, which means they are gifts free from error from the Holy Spirit given to the Church to proclaim the Truth of Christ Jesus on issues of faith and morals.
For some Catholics and almost all of our Protestant brothers and sisters, it is hard to accept that humans have been given the gift of infallibility. There are many conditions that have to be true for us to have an infallible document, and we take this VERY seriously. I go into this much more in the video on Apostolic Constitutions.
In brief, over the centuries we have come to the understanding that when it comes to issues of faith and morals, the Holy Spirit will prevent us from teaching an error. That might sound a little presumptuous on our part but we are trusting in Jesus when He said that He had much more to tell us and that “the Spirit of truth, He will guide you to all truth.”(2)
All Christians believe the Bible to be infallible. Who wrote the Bible? Who selected which books were to be included in the Bible? Humans divine inspired by the Holy Spirit. Why in the 4th and 5th century did the Church have the gift of infallibility when assembling the Bible but between 1962 and 1965 we don’t? Would Jesus pull back His promise to the Church at a critical moment of reform, a moment inspired Him? From what we know of God through His revelation in Scripture, it seems unlikely that He would do this to us.
Below are links to the documents. In the text below, you are seeing the incipit name | formal name | year promulgated (released).
- Sacrosanctum Concilium | Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy | 1963
- Lumen Gentium | Dogmatic Constitution On the Church | 1964
- Dei Verbum | Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation | 1965
- Gaudium et Spes | Pastoral Constitution On the Church In the Modern World | 1965
Next in level of authority are the nine decrees. In Church-speak, a decree explains how we are to accomplish the tasks and duties we are given. For example, the Decree on the Apostolate of Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) explains how we are to implement the teaching about our role in the Church according to the teachings in the Apostolic Constitutions.
Decree are binding on us because they explain the wisdom the Spirit has given us concerning how we should live and how we should relate to each other. Following the Scripture and the insight given to the Church since the beginning, the Council Fathers provide us guidance in several different areas.
Of course, we can ignore these standards but our experience as Church has shown that doing so separates us from the peace of Christ we seek.
- Inter Mirifica | Decree On the Means of Social Communication | 1963
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum | Decree On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite | 1964
- Unitatis Redintegratio | Decree on Ecumenism | 1964
- Christus Dominus | Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops In the Church | 1965
- Perfectae Caritatis | Decree On Renewal of Religious Life | 1965
- Optatam Totius | Decree On Priestly Training | 1965
- Apostolicam Actuositatem | Decree On the Apostolate of the Laity | 1965
- Ad Gentes | Decree On the Mission Activity of the Church | 1965
- Presbyterorum Ordinis | Decree On the Ministry and Life of Priests | 1965
At the lowest level of authority are the three declarations. These documents present the Council Father’s position on three topics. While these are not binding on anyone they hold a place of respect because they represent the wisdom of the Council Fathers on three critical issues, which are as important to us today as they were in 1965.
Probably the most widely known of the three is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) because it upsets those who believe that if you are not a Roman Catholic you are going to Hell.
- Gravissimum Educationis | Declaration On Christian Education, 1965
- Nostra Aetate | Declaration On the Relation Of the Church to Non-Christian Religions | 1965
- Dignitatis Humanae | Declaration On Religious Freedom | 1965
How This Helps In Becoming A Light To The Nations
One of the principles or purposes of the Becoming A Light To The Nations apostolate is to promote a practical study of the Vatican II documents among the laity. The Holy Spirit inspired the Saint John XXIII to call Vatican II to reform His Church; therefore, it is our responsibility to study and apply the Spirit’s teaching to find and live the life Jesus has called us to. Recall that the Holy Spirit “will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.”(3)
Coming to know these documents is therefore a critical aspect of Becoming A Light To The Nations.
1) Acts 15
3) John 16:13