The Catholic legal tradition offers perennial wisdom to legislator and layman alike. The Church has long safeguarded justice for its members by adopting Roman principles of law within a theological context. One of those principles is the so-called “vacation of law,” or the time between a law’s creation and its binding force upon its subjects. Laws do not bind people immediately for good reason. Suppose someone was innocent of a crime one day and guilty of it the next without ever knowing his action was punishable. This would create disorder — and possibly revolt — in society.
The Church is also a society, and the “vacation of law” reflects the pedagogical value of law for her members. Laws primarily serve to teach, and only secondarily to punish or constrict. After all, human persons are rational creatures, not blind robots. We need time to reflect upon newly crafted laws, challenge them when necessary, and, when in force, observe them dutifully according to their inner logic.
When Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis Custodes — the new document restricting celebration of the traditional Latin Mass — he forwent the traditional “vacation of the law.” As pope, he has every right to do so. But good governance suggests that the members of the Body of Christ will need time to understand the wisdom of the document, and ask questions when appropriate. This in no way permits one to reject the document tout court. Refusing to observe Traditionis Custodes or the prescriptions of one’s bishop is sinful. Grave disobedience is an ecclesiastical crime. Patience is still required, however, to grow in understanding, even without a vacation of the law.