Keynote Address to the National Catholic
Restorative Justice Conference
Oct. 27, 2020
Bishop Robert W. McElroy

The Catholic Mobilizing Network, in collaboration with the Diocese of San Diego and the University of San Diego, is hosting Harm, Healing and Human Dignity: An All-Virtual Catholic Conference on Restorative Justice on Oct. 27, 29 and 31. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy was the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference. (See address below.) Please contact Robert Ehnow, PhD, in the Office for Life, Peace and Justice, at rehnow@sdcatholic, for more information.

In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the meaning of social love in a world filled with anger and division, the parable of the Good Samaritan constitutes the moral centerpiece of the Pope’s message. For that reason, Francis examines this parable in depth, calling us to look upon it in wholly new ways in order to understand with ever-greater richness the dimensions of the love of neighbor which Jesus calls us to as the core of the Christian moral life.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”   The man answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite; when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him, and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and water on them.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus said to him “go and do likewise.”

In presenting the parable as the keystone for the understanding of social love, “Fratelli Tutti” examines each of the characters in turn, looking to their core identities.

The priest and the Levite are figures of indifference. They are religious men, individuals of many fine moral qualities, no doubt.  But they encounter the suffering of the beaten man by the side of the road and simply turn away.  They have other obligations that outweigh the overwhelming pain of the man who lies along their path. They prefer not to get involved. They do not want to challenge the system. They do not want to enter into the humanity and the woundedness of the man lying by the roadside. They follow the law and that should be sufficient.

The beaten man symbolizes the tremendous suffering rampant in humanity.  And in this key moment in his life, he is overcome with aloneness.  He sees the priest and the Levite walk by and he endures a new moment of abandonment from the very men who should stand with him – fellow Jews, religious leaders, men of means who could assist him.  When he sees the Samaritan coming, he despairs, thinking what can I claim in justice or in compassion from a man who is my enemy by birth?

Finally comes the Samaritan, walking intently on the road, eager to arrive in time for his next appointment.  Precisely because we have heard this parable so many times, we mistakenly think it was easy for the Samaritan to reach out and help.  It was not.  The road is a dangerous one and he is alone.  He must ponder: Is this man really the beaten victim of robbers, or is he merely a lure to get me to stop so that the robbers can victimize me also?  Even if the man by the side of the road is not a lure, are the robbers still lurking nearby seeking other targets?  Our fundamental misunderstanding of the heroism of the Good Samaritan is our belief that he was merely compassionate and generous.  In fact, the greatness of the Good Samaritan was that he was willing to risk everything to help a person that he did not know and had nothing in common with.

After sketching out the core identity of each of the characters in the parable, Pope Francis springs his spiritual trap: “If we extend our gaze to the history of our own lives….all of us are, or have been, like each of the characters in the parable.  All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by and something of the Good Samaritan.”

Let us pause for a moment of silent reflection how we have been passer-by, robber, victim and Samaritan at important moments in our lives.

I propose to you today, that these same characters of Jesus’s parable – passer-by, robber, victim and Good Samaritan — also reflect the power and the richness of an ethic of restorative justice.

The priest and the Levite are leaders in the social system.  They accept the rules and laws of their society because to do so brings peace and order to their lives. They notice the man beaten by the side of the road. They see his suffering but feel no obligation to help him because the rules do not require it.  Theirs is a sense of procedural justice that is clear but limited, secure but not expansive.

The ethic of restorative justice calls us as passersby to move beyond that tidy notion of justice to invest ourselves in a deeper notion of repair and reconciliation that lies not in mere punishment, nor even in rehabilitation alone, but in moving our society toward a substantive repair of the crimes and injuries that we see all around us, so that cycles of anger and shame and retribution might be replaced with a hard-won spirit of mutual reconciliation.  This means entering into the woundedness of both the victim by the side of the road, and the humanity of the robber. It is a far more expansive and demanding notion of justice.

If we continue upon our journey of contemplating the characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan to find true justice, we encounter the victim who has been deeply wounded by crime, lying by the side of the road, seeking to be whole once more. It is precisely in recognizing the many dimensions of the suffering of the man or woman who has been assaulted in body, soul or spirit, that we find the only pathway to authentic and comprehensive healing and restoration.

It is critical to recognize that in vindicating the humanity of the offender, we not obscure the harm that he or she has done.  For truth is foundational to any true restorative justice.  As Pope Francis says in “Fratelli Tutti,” “truth in fact is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy.”

Yet even as authentic restorative justice calls us to recognize fully and seek healing for the woman or man lying by the side of the road, it calls in a miracle of grace and healing for the very same victim of crime to be a Good Samaritan, reaching out heroically in reconciliation and dialogue to the very individual who has hurt them precisely when there is no claim in strict justice to do so.  The movement toward personal encounter and dialogue that is so vital to restorative justice holds the capacity to bring about in many instances transformative healing and reconciliation, with much work and many tears. And this richer, deeper concept of justice creates the only culture of crime and justice that can bring on both the personal and societal levels, peace rather than ever more anger and violence.

The figure of the robber in the parable of the Good Samaritan is in the shadows throughout the action of the story.  But it is to him that restorative justice brings its greatest grace. For a framework of restoration allows the robber to be a Good Samaritan also, bringing healing to the very people he or she has injured. Such action does not have the heroism of the Good Samaritan, who risks himself for a person to which he has no obligation in justice. But offenders can have through restorative justice a heroism nonetheless, bringing a gift to those whom they have hurt that no one else can bring, and finding a new dimension of personal peace in the process.

The beauty of the ethic of restorative justice is precisely that it breaks through the false tidiness and order of the justice system as it currently exists in our country, Church and institutions. It calls us to see ourselves in each of the characters of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and in doing so find a new generosity of heart, rejection of judgmentalism, and thirst for reconciliation within our own lives and that of our society as a whole.

I pray that these days of reflection, learning and collaboration may be rich in wisdom and in grace, and that we might move steadily toward a system of justice where the Good Samaritan would feel truly at home.