Today we celebrate the feast one of the Church’s greatest intellectuals, the patron saint of scientists and Doctor of the Church, St. Albert the Great, also known as Albertus Magnus.
Born to a noble German family somewhere between 1193 and 1206, Albert’s intelligence led his parents to educate him at the University of Padua. It was at Padua where Blessed Jordan of Saxony encouraged Albert to join the Dominican order. As a friar, he studied in Bologna and went on to teach in Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg and Hildesheim. In 1245 he received his doctorate from the University of Paris where he later taught as a master of Theology. In 1260, he was appointed bishop of Regensberg, but after 3 years he resigned to become an advisor to the pope. In his later life, in 1274, he participated in the Council of Lyons. As an aged man, he went to Paris to defend the teaching of his greatest student, Thomas Aquinas.
St. Albert’s greatest fame during his lifetime was as a scientist and a theologian when he lived and studied in Cologne. He conducted experiments in physics and chemistry. He collected varying species of plants, insects and chemical compounds. He gained expertise in biology, astronomy, geology, metaphysics, and math. When the church of Cologne built a new cathedral, they consulted Albert for his input on the design. Other famed scientists of the time, such as Roger Bacon, called him “Magnus”, meaning great, during his lifetime due to his reputation as a scholar and philosopher. As a scientist and a theologian, he saw no conflict between a life of science and a life of faith and believed in the harmony between them.
Albertus’ writings collected in 1899 went to thirty-eight volumes. These displayed his prolific habits and literally encyclopedic knowledge of topics such as logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, chemistry, zoology, physiology, phrenology and others; all of which were the result of logic and observation. He was perhaps the most well-read author of his time. He digested, interpreted and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works, gleaned from the Latin translations and notes of the Arabian commentators, in accordance with Church doctrine. Most modern knowledge of Aristotle was preserved and presented by Albertus.
Albertus’ activity, however, was more philosophical than theological (see Scholasticism). The philosophical works, occupying the first six and the last of the twenty-one volumes, are generally divided according to the Aristotelian scheme of the sciences, and consist of interpretations and condensations of Aristotle’s relative works, with supplementary discussions upon contemporary topics, and occasional divergences from the opinions of the master.
His principal theological works are a commentary in three volumes on the Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Magister Sententiarum), and the Summa Theologiae in two volumes. The latter is in substance a more didactic repetition of the former.
What an amazing mind! St. Albert died in 1280 and was beatified more than 300 years later in 1622. In 1931, he was canonized and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. I can’t help but wonder, “What took so long?”
The Church teaches in CCC #36 that “God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” St. Albert’s life reflected this truth. Yet his elevation to sainthood did not take place until 650 years after his death, during the beginning third of the twentieth century. So I ask myself, “Why then?” The only thing that seems to make sense to me is the gradual separation taking place between science and faith as a result of the promulgation of Darwinism in the mid-1800s. The teachings of Darwin remove the Creator from creation, casting it adrift in its own primordial soup.
It is fitting under this backdrop that the Church recognized a great mind of both science and faith, elevating him to Doctor for his teachings, writings, and influence on the Church.
Let us pray today for people of science, that they see the Creator in His creation and fear not in witnessing to it; for those who do not believe in God, that they will find Him and hold Him fast; and for the intercession of St. Albert in our scientific age, that faith and reason be reunited in the minds of all.
St. Albert the Great, pray for us! Anne