11 November 2022

Saint of the Week – St Albert the Great

Ever since the (so-called) ‘Enlightenment’ there has been a pervasive myth that religion and science are locked in opposition to each other. The implication is that religion is for the ignorant, and therefore the Church is anti-science. Such an outlook requires an astonishing ignorance of Western history and specifically the history of science or indeed the development of the universities.

Name: Albert the Great, Bishop of Regensburg

Born: A.D.1200; Lauingen, Bavaria (Germany)

Died: 15th November 1280; Cologne

Feast Day: 15th November

Patron Saint of: Scientists; philosophers; natural sciences.

Our saint of the week provides a good demonstration of how the Church lauded and promoted enquiry into the natural sciences as being advantageous to religion. St Albert was born in about A.D.1200. He went to study at the Universities of Padua and later Bologna (among the oldest universities in the world) where his love of truth and learning drew him to the Dominican Order. There his capacious intellectual gifts were fostered and given full reign. His encyclopaedic learning earned him the names ‘doctor universalis’ and ‘Albertus Magnus’ – Albert the Great – by which he is still known. Pope Pius XI formally declared Albert a doctor of the Church in 1931.

There is scarcely an area of enquiry that St Albert did not subject to his inquisitive mind. His writings fill thirty-eight volumes (in print) and cover almost every conceivable topic: physics, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, alchemy (ie. chemistry), biology, logic, music theory and jurisprudence. Albert wrote separate treatises on botany, and human and animal physiology, which he studied with evident fascination. All of this was however peripheral to Albert’s primary contribution to the Western thought, namely the rehabilitation of the philosophy of Aristotle. Together with his most famous student, St Thomas Aquinas, Albert helped forge the synthesis of (primarily Aristotelean) philosophy and theology that was to become the model of the medieval scholastic system.

Medieval Christendom, far from being backward or parochial, was an international golden age, where people, ideas, and fashions travelled freely across Europe. Consider, for example, that in his lifetime St Albert, grew up in Bavaria, studied in Padua and Bologna, and then taught at universities in Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Hildesheim and Paris. Latin was the common language of the universities, which is why to this day Latin is used as the technical language of classification in virtually all the scientific disciplines: medicine, zoology, botany, etc. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia meaning knowledge. For the medieval world the pursuit of knowledge in every discipline was seen as noble and praiseworthy, because to seek the truth was to seek God who is Truth itself and the source of all truth. The European universities were not established as secular institutions; indeed, they consisted almost entirely of priests. Within academia the lowest ranked areas of study were the natural sciences (since they were limited to mere empirical observation of physical phenomena). Philosophy was considered a higher science (since it sought to understand abstract truths) but ranked in the highest place was theology, called the “Queen of the Sciences”, because it sought to understand the ultimate truth of the mystery of God.

It says much about our culture that this has been completely inverted and today most people consider the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) to be the most intellectually prestigious areas of study, whereas philosophy and theology are basically considered irrelevant. Aristotle and St Albert alike would baulk at such an ignorant and biased presupposition. Albert’s insatiable desire to know and understand the world in which he lived flowed from his faith in the Creator who clearly designed the universe with such astonishing complexity, beauty and order. God has left His fingerprints all over His work of creation. Far from undermining Albert’s religious convictions the learned doctor’s study of the sciences only strengthened his faith. God is truth, and therefore every sincere and unbiased pursuit of the truth will inevitably lead to God.

St Albert the Great, pray for us!

PS. For those interested in how the latest in scientific discoveries is actually strengthening the case for God’s existence (and making atheism look increasingly intellectually indefensible) consider reading Eric Metaxas’ Is Atheism Dead (Salem Books, 2021).