I often hear many people (of more traditionalist bent, but also more moderates) state that Vatican II is pastoral, not ecumenical. What does it mean for a council to be pastoral, and what does it mean for a council to be ecumenical?

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    It would be great if you could provide a quote. AFAIK Vatican II is both: at least pastoral in that the mass is more "user friendly" (vernacular), reconciliation is no longer through a screen, etc. But definitely ecumenical in softening the status of Protestant as "ecclesial communities", giving proper honor to the Jews, recognizing there are some truths in other religions (although full truths can only be found in Jesus and the Church), etc. Aug 13, 2023 at 22:09
  • @GratefulDisciple I don’t know if a quote is needed - I really just want clear definitions of what is meant when someone calls a council pastoral and when someone calls a council ecumenical
    – Luke Hill
    Aug 13, 2023 at 23:02
  • "Pastoral not ecumenical"? The distinction I usually here is pastoral not dogmatic
    – eques
    Aug 15, 2023 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


What does it mean to say that Vatican II is pastoral rather than ecumenical?

True that the Second Vatican Council was a pastoral one. It is equally an ecumenical council as well.

Vatican II remains unique in many ways.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a unique ecumenical council. The previous twenty were assembled to address particular doctrinal or ecclesial crises, while John XXIII called Vatican II to layout a new pastoral program for engaging the modern world. It was not a particular crisis but a general one, focused on finding a new way of conveying the Christian life in the modern world.

In the aftermath of the Council, both progressive and traditional wings viewed it as revolutionary, a sharp break from the previous practice of the Church. It did not help that the 1960s were a period of great cultural turmoil, adding fuel to the fire of confusion and disaffiliation that occurred in the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI, who as a peritus or theological expert at the Council had helped draft some of the documents as part of the progressive party, looked back with concern and identified two major ways of interpreting the Council: a hermeneutic of “discontinuity and rupture” and one of “reform” in continuity with the tradition. The “Spirit of Vatican II” belonged to the former interpretation and came to stand for a whole new way of thinking, praying, teaching, and living as a Catholic in the modern world, marked by a much greater openness to the world and aversion to traditional Catholic practices.

It seemed that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were steering the Church toward continuity, although Pope Francis has led a reemergence of the progressive camp.

Francis has repeatedly called attention to what he views as a growing rejection of the Second Vatican Council. Speaking to editors of European Jesuit journals on May 19, he related this view: “It is very difficult to see spiritual renewal using old-fashioned criteria. We need to renew our way of seeing reality, of evaluating it. . . . Restorationism has come to gag the Council. The number of groups of ‘restorers’ – for example, in the United States there are many – is significant. . . .They had never accepted the Council.” - What does it mean to reject Vatican II?

The Council was in itself quite traditional. What is unorthodox is in the manner in which modern Catholics interpreted the teachings of Vatican II. This should not be a shock to us for after each Ecumenical Council turmoil followed in one degree or another.

Vatican II not sole controversial council! They all dealt with hard issues facing the Church.

For example, not all Catholics accepted Vatican I and papal infallibility! We tend to over look these points!

There have been 21 ecumenical councils in the Church's history, at which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "the college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner." So Vatican II is totally and authentically an Ecumenical Council.

If we hold to the definition of what is an Ecumenical Council then Vatican II is just that an Ecumenical Council.

Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians. A council, Ecumenical in its convocation, may fail to secure the approbation of the whole Church or of the pope, and thus not rank in authority with Ecumenical councils. Such was the case with the Robber Synod of 449 (Latrocinium Ephesinum), the Synod of Pisa in 1409, and in part with the Councils of Constance and Basle.

Thus Vatican II was both traditional in nature and ecumenical. It was however more pastoral and less dogmatic than previous Ecumenical Councils. As I stated above, the major problem is in how the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council documents were handled.... The Council in itself was amazing!

  • I don’t know if this is an international thing, in my country progressive catholics have adopted the idea of “in the spirit of Vaticanum II”, meaning in practice something like “the council never said this, but we wish it had, and we think it meant to”
    – ABM K
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:27
  • @ABMK There are two major ways of interpreting the Council: a hermeneutic of “discontinuity and rupture” and one of “reform” in continuity with the tradition. The “Spirit of Vatican II” belonged to the former interpretation! To say that the "meaning in practice something like “the council never said this, but we wish it had, and we think it meant" is to interpret the council on a private level and absolutely be avoided. Ecclesiastical dubiums should be forwarded to Rome in order to maintain what the Church truly meant about something. Personal interpretations are this to be avoided.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:39
  • oh you and I do agree on this, no misunderstanding there I hope. I only try to tell how the turmoil after the council worked in our country. I do not believe it helped the church or the souls of the faithful a lot. But an entire generation went with it, started the second iconoclastic fury, and almost completely destroyed the church here. Do not think I am happy with that!
    – ABM K
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:46
  • So it would not be risky to say Vatican II is definitely a different sort of council, more focused on the pastoral side of giving already stated information in a new way?
    – Luke Hill
    Aug 17, 2023 at 19:38
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    @LukeHill I think your analysis would be correct
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 17, 2023 at 22:36

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