What was the difference between The First Vatican Council and the Second? Was the Second Council a continuation of the first? What does a 'Pastoral' Council mean?

2 Answers 2


The First Vatican Council (8 December 1869 to 20 October 1870) defined dogmas on ecclesiology (incl. papal infallibility) and faith and reason in its two documents

  1. Pastor Æternus (First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ)
  2. Dei Filius (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith),

respectively. The council was cut short due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and invasion of Rome.

In 1923, Pope Pius XI considered it dangerous to reconvene the council because—as Cdl. Billot advised him, contrary to the counsel Pius XI sought from almost 40 other theologians—(from The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story II 4. §b)

it would impossible to conceal the existence of profound differences, within the episcopacy itself, on social, political and economic questions, and their relations with morality and the rule of faith. Because of their complexity, these questions will be presented under different aspects depending on the country, and they will give rise to discussion that will run the risk of being extended and prolonged indefinitely.

So here we have the most important reason that would seem to me to militate absolutely against the idea. The resumption of the council is desired by the worst enemies of the Church, that is, by the modernists, who are already prepared—as the most certain information testifies—to take advantage of the general situations in the Church in order to start a revolution, the new French Revolution of their hopes and dreams. It is useless to say that they will not succeed, but we will relive the sorrowful days of the end of the reign of Leo XIII and the beginning of the pontificate of Pius X; we will see even worse, and it will be the total destruction of the happy fruits of the encylical Pascendi which had reduced them [i.e. the modernists] to silence.

Here is what Cdl. Ottaviani said about John XXIII's idea to convene Vatican II (ibid. §c):

He had spoken about it to me from the moment of his election. Or rather, to be more precise, it was I who visited him in his little room at the conclave on the eve of the election. Among other things I told him, “Your Eminence, it is necessary to think about a council.” Cardinal Ruffini, who was present at the conversation, was of the same mind. Cardinal Roncalli adopted this idea and later had this to say: “I have thought of a council from the moment when I became pope.” It’s true, he welcomed our suggestion.”

The nebulous term "pastoral" was used to describe how Vatican II refused to condemn errors and heresies.

For more info on Vatican II and how it differed from all the previous ecumenical councils, see the Little Catechism on the Second Vatican Council:

  1. Part One

  2. Part Two

  3. Part Three

  4. Part Four - The Four Constitutions: Lumen Gentium on the Church

  5. Part Five - The Four Constitutions (continued):  Dei Verbum (on sources of Revelation)

  6. Part Six - The Four Constitutions (continued):  Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the liturgy

  7. Part Seven - The Four Constitutions (continued): Gaudium et Spes - The Place of the Church in the Modern World

  8. Part Eight – The Nine Decrees (decrees 1-5)

  9. Part Nine - The Nine Decrees (decrees 6-9)

  10. Part Ten – The Three Declarations (first of three: Dignitatis Humanæ: on religious liberty)

  11. Part Eleven – The Three Declarations (second and third of three): ‘Nostra ætate’ and ‘Gravissimum educationis’

  12. Part Twelve – CONCLUSION

  • 2
    I think it would be good to be explicit that you're presenting a Traditionalist view of Vatican II and that the Little Catechism on the Second Vatican Council is not officially endorsed by the Catholic Church.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 3:48
  • 1
    This does not answer "how the Vatican I and Vatican II councils are related to one another?"
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:59
  • @KenGraham How so?
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 15:50


Although the First Vatican Council was prorogued due to the Franco-Prussian War, Vatican I and Vatican II were two very different councils. They were different in two primary ways. First, with respect to the Church's relationship to the world. Second, with respect to the emphasis regarding the governance of the Church. These are two common lenses through which the legacy of the two councils are compared.

Attitude towards the World

Regarding the first difference, Vatican I had a cold and distrustful attitude towards the world and Vatican II had a warm and hopeful attitude towards the world. In fact, today there is a theological consensus that Vatican I was too distrustful and Vatican II was too optimistic. The differing historical contexts of the two councils explains this difference in large part.

Vatican I followed upon the religious disintegration of Europe and the French Revolution. The Church was reeling not only from political struggles but also from other manifestations of modernism, including scientific, philosophical, and theological novelties (many of which Pius IX had condemned in his Syllabus of Errors). Therefore Pius IX sought to shore up the power of the Church and especially the power of the Pope. Vatican I therefore defined the Pope's jurisdictional supremacy over the entire Church (which includes discipline and government in addition to faith and morals). The attitudes of the modern world were viewed with strong suspicion and the Council gave significant power to the Pope to resist the mounting pressures of modernism. Secular rulers such as William Gladstone were in turn worried that the Pope's new powers would give the Church too much power over Catholic citizens.

By Vatican II secular modernism had suffered a significant setback with the two world wars, and there was a desire for peace, and in particular peace between religious bodies and secular states. It was felt that the Church was too insular and defensive, and that warmer relations with the outside world would benefit both parties. This warm sentiment towards the world can be seen most clearly in the document Gaudium et Spes.

Internal Governance

The distrust of Vatican I extended in some ways to the college of bishops. Today as a consequence of Vatican I the Pope (or the Curia) appoints almost all bishops, but in 1829 only 24 out of 646 Latin Rite bishops were appointed by the Pope (source). The period prior to Vatican I included movements in favor of Conciliarism and episcopal collegiality, especially in Germany and France. The Italian Council of Pistoia was a good example of this movement. The reaction at Vatican I was to emphasize the rights and power of the Pope, especially in relation to the bishops. For example, Pastor Aeternus explicitly rejects the Gallican claim that dogmatic definitions of the Pope are only irreformable in light of episcopal consensus (or the sensus fidelium):

Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

In contrast, at Vatican II we see a highlighting of the rights and powers of the bishops and the college of bishops, especially in the third chapter of Lumen Gentium. We also see a highlighting of the dignity of the laity. A common charge after Vatican I was that the enormous power given to the Pope eclipsed the rights of the bishops and the laity, and the Fathers of Vatican II were sensitive to this critique. Local councils/synods all but disappeared after Vatican I, but synods were revived at Vatican II--albeit in an altered form. Ever since Vatican II the Pope has convened a synod of bishops approximately every three years. Many see the episcopal emphasis of Vatican II as balancing the Papal emphasis of Vatican I, a council which was cut short. At the same time, the episcopal and lay emphasis of Vatican II was considerably qualified by the papal prerogatives of Vatican I.


In conclusion, there are two basic differences between Vatican I and Vatican II: their attitude towards the world, and their emphasis regarding Church governance. Vatican I was distrustful towards the world whereas Vatican II was optimistic. Vatican I focused on the rights and powers of the Pope, whereas Vatican II focused on the bishops and the laity.

Note: Vatican II is sometimes referred to as a "pastoral" council because it was the first council which was not legislative in nature. Most councils revolved around prescriptions and proscriptions, along with the attendant penalties for failure to observe them. Vatican II broke away from that tradition entirely.

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