By Father Mark F. Plaushin, OSFS
July 15, 2008
(The Morning Call)
A political man who taught optimism
Against the backdrop of the McCain and Obama campaigns, the death of a retired professor may seem unremarkable. Father Bernie Donahue, teacher of political philosophy, died on July 9, and his death could pass simply as dismaying irony, coming less than two months before DeSales University's dedication of a new residence hall in his honor and the celebration of his 50 years as a Catholic priest. However, for his students and colleagues who will keep him in happy memory, his passing reminds us to approach both life and politics with optimism about the human person and the politics that shape our life together. This may serve us in November, when the curtains of the election booth draw us into the issues silhouetting America's future.
Certainly, he will be remembered as helping to put Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, now DeSales University, on the map. But, he also helped many of us make important distinctions about politics. When I arrived and shared that I had a degree in political science I was rebuked: "We do politics here, NOT political science." Politics, he emphasized, focuses on the human need to stand in relationship with others, not on pandering data. Of course, Professor Donahue was also Father Donahue, and his lived faith enlivened all encounters with him and his thinking as political philosopher.
R.A. Butler, British foreign secretary in 1963-1964, said, "Politics is largely a matter of heart." The same man said, "In politics you must keep running with the pack. The moment that you falter and they sense you are injured, the rest will turn on you like wolves." Between our profound hopes for community and our profane experience of its shortcomings, Father Donahue honed an idea of politics hinging on a savvy synthesis of faith and reason.
He concluded that participation in politics is appropriate to God's created beings. In 1958 he wrote, "The individual, despite any personal preference to the contrary, cannot really extricate himself from the fabric of social life without at the same time impeding his development and perfection as a human being."
His perennial theme was this "unity of the human family." Father Donahue's fusion of the Aristotelian formula, "it is in justice that the ordering of society is centered," and scripture's portrayal of God as source and advocate for justice, led him to view political power as good-given by God, and in the hands of good men, enabling justice.
With the war in Vietnam in mind, he wrote in 1966, "It is a reassuring tribute to the vitality of American democracy that prudential restraints upon the use of our power are coming up from the people and are forcing upon our political leaders a reassessment of the priorities now expressed in national policies, domestic and foreign. The many surprises occurring in our political life today are directly attributable to this popular demand for leadership which will provide for the prudential employment of American power in the establishment of an acceptable set of national priorities."
It is not that Father Donahue advanced new theories of politics, but there is this: He stood as believer and political man, committed to teaching optimism about the human person and the potential for communities to exercise power on behalf of a larger unity of peoples in a just and lasting way. After each of my tours in the war zone as an Army chaplain, Father Donahue always welcomed me home enthusiastically. "Tell me about the people there! How are they doing?" Always, our discussion came back to the moral responsibility inherent in the use of American power, and its implications for those wielding it and those touched by it. As the general election nears, it behooves us to reflect on our candidates' ability to do the same.
(The Rev. Mark F. Plaushin teaches in the department of philosophy and theology at DeSales University in Center Valley. He served as an army chaplain.)
Press Release: A political man who taught optimism | Posted on: 7/15/2008
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