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Law is never having to say you’re sorry

Fr. Kevin Nadolski | Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Once in a while, everyone makes a mistake at work. It is inevitable. Common courtesy, good manners and professional behavior beckon the expected and reasonable response of a simple apology. For some, however, it just isn’t that easy.  
Pennsylvania now has a law, passed in October, permitting doctors to say they are sorry to patients when the physicians err at work. Previously, they could not do so out of danger of a lawsuit. Thirty-six other states have similar laws.
“As physicians, it is part of our job – part of our moral and ethical responsibility – to respond to patients and families when there are less than favorable outcomes,” Dr. C. Richard Schott, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said in a statement. “Medicine is not an exact science, and outcomes may be unpredictable. Benevolent gestures are always appropriate, and physicians should not have to fear giving them.”
Very simply, it is human to apologize. Presidents and popes have done it. It can save marriages and reconcile churches. Parents do it, hoping their children learn well about taking responsibility for mistakes. Giving an apology and having it accepted aids healing, the kind that touches the soul and frees us from a long-standing suffering that can rob our joy and embitter us.
Discussing our overly-litigious society is hackneyed, yet the values that have created it still need to be parsed and purified. Dr. Schott’s quote points to the human experience at the center of all relationships, including transactional ones in commerce, medicine or government, for example. Relationships at work or in the marketplace require an abiding respect for human dignity. The Gospel that fuels our Catholic social teaching celebrates this.  
While careful attention needs to be given to an apology, accepting it calls forth equal energy. How clear are we when we accept their apology? When people say they are sorry to us, the response is commonly lukewarm or mildly dismissive: “That’s okay,” “no problem,” or a sound that indicates something like a yes.
The simple words “I accept your apology,” “I appreciate that,” or “thanks, but I need a little more time to consider what you’re saying” communicate something much deeper. We recognize the effort and offer at peacemaking, and we, in turn, desire reconciliation and healing, grace that comes at the cost of the human work of forgiveness and understanding – not the cost of litigation, lawmaking and trials of reputation.  
It is true that it is hard, human work to forgive. Countless spiritual authors and retreat leaders have addressed this ever-difficult task. Is the first step to discuss the hurt we have felt from another, to make ourselves vulnerable and to let someone know it would be helpful to receive an apology?
The word “apology” comes from the Greek word meaning “away.” In this vein, an apology is helpful to send hurt away from the injured heart and the conscience of the one who committed the harm. Ironically, an injury can be sent away only when a person receives an apology and holds on to the sorrow to displace the harm.
Frequently, we wait for those who hurt us to apologize. While this is understandable, perhaps we are abdicating the power to another in a passive manner. Our peace and the balance of our hearts are too important to be given away. Being proactive in the wake of an injury is a fine gesture of self-respect. It could even be called a benevolent gesture, one that, once again, needs no law – just a heart that seeks to love Jesus.

Fr. Kevin Nadolski, a priest with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, works for his community as director of development and
communications. He has served the church as a Catholic high school teacher, campus minister and
principal, as well as vocation and
formation director for the Oblates. He lives with his community in Wilmington, Del., and can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this
column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.