Lesson 1: The Background of the Council



The condition of the Church in the 1950s. Differences between Europe and America. Popular strength but intellectual problems.

The election of John XXIII. His character and the significance of his election.

The "style" of John XXIII. The symbolic importance of his personality and actions.

The meaning of an ecumenical council. Some previous councils. Why was the Second Vatican Council summoned?

Suggested Readings

  • Documents of the Second Vatican Council (various editions) Sacrosanctum Concilium ("Introduction")
  • Loris Capovilla, The Heart and Mind of John XXIII
  • James Hitchcock, The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism, Ch. 1.
  • Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope John XXIII
  • Paul Johnson, Pope John XXIII
  • Robert Blair Kaiser, Pope, Council, and World
  • Xavier Rynne, Letters from Vatican City, I
  • Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber

Suggestions for Review

1) What are ecumenical councils and what role do they play in the life of the Church?

2) Assess the state of the Church on the eve of the Council.

3) What purposes was the Council expected to serve, according to John XXIII and the Council fathers themselves?

4) Describe the "mood" of the times (early 1960's). How did the summoning of the Council fit that mood? What expectations did various people have for the Council?

5) How did the personality and public image of John XXIII affect expectations for the Council?

6) What is the relationship between an ecumenical council and the pope, in terms of the exercise of authority?

7) Compare the view of John XXIII found in Hebblethwaite, Rynne, or Kaiser with the Journal of a Soul.

8) Based on Wiltgen, assess the thesis that the concerns of northwest Europe exercised a disproportionate influence on expectations for the Council. What was distinctive about northwest European Catholicism, both historically and in 1960?


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