Albert, the Great, Theologian and Scientist

Saint Albertus Magnus, a fresco by Tommaso da Modena (1352, 70 or so years after the saint's death), Church of San Nicolò, Treviso, Italy.

Saint Albert (1200-1280), whose life spans what William Walsh called the ‘greatest of centuries’ was given the title ‘the Great’, even before his death. Scholar, Dominican, bishop, scientist, and Doctor of the Church, he was considered the most learned man of his age, with an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything under the Sun, in an era when one could truly be a renaissance man before the inaccurately-named era of the same name.  His writings, which fill 38 volumes (!) include such varied topics as love, music, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, alchemy (the precursor to chemistry), zoology, physiology, phrenology (for all its future problems, it was the precursor to neuroscience), justice, law (human, natural, eternal, divine), friendship and love.  He even wrote a very accurate and helpful treatise on falconry. No wonder he is called ‘Doctor Universalis’, the ‘teaching of everything’, or just ‘Expertus‘ – the Expert.

Albert was the first to comment on the newly-rediscovered and translated works of Aristotle, which would shape the course of philosophy for centuries, right into our own era (say what one likes of some of Aristotle’s conclusions, his principles still form the basis of all human reasoning). Albert also wrote much on what is now known as ‘science’, the empirical investigation of the world, and may be considered as one of its founders, centuries before Bacon and Galileo, with all of their own hubris.  Contrary to the myth that the scholastics uncritically accepted the opinions of authorities, here is Albert with a caution to all scientists, including modern ones, so given to an unbending ‘consensus’ on issues from climate change to evolution:

The aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature

Ah, yes, the seeking and contemplation of knowledge and truth, the true and essential purpose of Man. Would that more than a few of our own scientists, so enamored of the  ‘consensus’, took these words to heart.

in 1254 Albert was appointed Provincial of the Dominican Order, and in 1260 bishop of Regensburg, both posts fulfilled prudently and dutifully. Refusing to own a horse, in accord with his Dominican vow of poverty, he walked hundreds of miles across his vast diocese (he was called ‘boots the Bishop’) praying and thinking all the way, writing many of his volumes, we may presume, in his head.

Besides all of his own invaluable work, Albert is perhaps best known as the teacher and promoter of his more famous disciple, Saint Thomas, who in some ways would end up surpassing the master. Thomas, a young Dominican from the noble Aquinas family in Italy, was large, quiet, and reflective, nicknamed the ‘dumb ox’ by his fellow students, who considered him slow. When Albert asked one of them to help poor Thomas on a difficult question, Thomas gently offered a solution to his stumbling would-be helper that was as good, if not better, than the teacher himself could have.  It is reported Albert declared that they would all one day hear this ‘dumb ox’ braying throughout the world, and so it has been.  The two became life-long friends and collaborators, and Albert wept at the sudden and unexpected death of Thomas, as the latter journeyed to the Council of Lyons in 1274.  Albert would go on to live into his 80’s, passing to his eternal reward six years after his friend and former student, and after a full and active life.

Both Albert and Thomas are the patron saints of ‘learning’ in the broad sense, of teachers, students, scientists, all those who pursue the truth. But being open to the truth requires a rightly-ordered will, that one desires the good that is at the basis of all truth.  For even ‘truth’ can be distorted and warped by, and to, our own whims and desires.  Clarity of mind requires the same concomitant quality in one’s body and soul, or as the Catechism puts it:

There is a connection between purity of heart, of body and of faith (#2518).

This is followed by a quotation from Saint Augustine, upon whom both Thomas and Albert based much of their own thought:

The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying they may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe”

As recent Church history has demonstrated, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, right thinking and right living, stand or fall together.  That is why the great John Paul II declared that clarity in the realms both of faith and of reason are required for the formation of the human mind and soul. In fact, ortho-doxa literally means right ‘praise’ or ‘glory’, which is what the truth really is: a manifestation of the glory of God Himself.

Without faith, reason – prey to darkness and ignorance since the Fall of Adam – goes off the rails, devolving into rationalism, a over-dependence upon Man’s vacillating and weak intellect. The bizarre dogmatic claims now made, that go far beyond any evidence, are themselves signs of this, as we have seen in ‘climate science’ and other various comic cosmic and evolutionary theories.

More tragically, on the moral plane, are the evil fruits of various ‘rational’ atheistic totalitarian regimes, from the French revolution and Marxist-inspired utopias, built without God and without charity, ending in bloodshed and violence.

And what of all of our technologies – contraception, in-vitro fertilization, genetic modification, artificial intelligence – applied without a solid moral framework, again with tragic results we have yet to fully foresee? As Donum Vitae declares, science and know-how themselves do not offer moral solutions: Just because we can, does not mean we should.

On the other hand, without reason, faith either becomes an emotionalist, empty morass , as we see in certain syrupy strains of Christianity, which wither away like the grass of the field, and the ethereal feelings on which such ‘faith’ is based.

Or one’s faith becomes hardened, unhinged from common sense, in a word, fideism, descending into something erratic, justifying much evil in the name of ‘God’. Pope Benedict warned of this in his 2006 Address at Regensburg – where Albert had been bishop eight centuries prior. We all now know, if we did not already from history, that the Pope spoke truly. Radical Islam, to this day still enslaving, torturing, beheading and crucifying ‘infidels’; but we may also see its type in the early strains of radical Puritanism embodied by such figures as Oliver Cromwell, destroying artistic treasures across England, and, more woefully, massacring Irish Catholics on a genocidal scale.

This is all a result of the refusal to see that reason – logic, common sense, following one’s natural synderesis – is itself a gift from God, a participation in the very mind of the Omniscient, which must itself guide the application and unpacking of the ‘mysteries’ of our faith. Fides quaerens intellectum: Faith seeking understanding, as Anselm wrote. This is not just an intellectual and theoretical debate, for, as the saying goes, ideas really do have consequences, and dire ones at that.

The only answer is what John Paul II called for in his 1998 Fides et Ratio: To allow the certainty of faith to expand the horizons of our reason, while keeping faith on the  right path; in sum, to draw a harmonic synthesis between these two ‘wings of the human intellect’ – found most perfectly in the principles offered by the Church’s tradition and her great doctors, Albert, Thomas and others, who integrated in their own lives the harmony between the virtues of the soul and mind, holiness and intelligence.

Here are the words of Pope John Paul from that same encyclical, describing the ‘Dumb Ox’, whose own singular and unique mind and writings were perhaps the greatest testament to work of his teacher and formator, Saint Albert:

Saint Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth. In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought, for he could defend the radical newness introduced by Revelation without ever demeaning the venture proper to reason. (FR, 78).

Albert had to wait some time for his canonization, which took place on December 16th, 1931, by Pope Pius XI, during which ceremony he was also declared a Doctor of the Church. But his feast is kept on the day he died, November 15th.

We should pray to Saint Albert, not least for scientists and a world so enraptured to their opinions, that all may seek the truth, and not strive to affirm their own biases and agendas, so that we may all live more fully here in the world, and the path to heaven cleared for as many as will accept God’s grace and truth, which is the only thing that will set us free.