St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus): Friendship between Faith and Science

Albert the Great, Patron of Scientists

Today the Church commemorates St. Albert the Great. He is not a too well-known Saint. Usually, people know him as the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, but a lot fewer know that he was himself a great scholar who left a vast corpus of learned works. He was “known as the ‘teacher of everything there is to know’, was a scientist long before the age of science, was considered a wizard and magician in his own lifetime, and became the teacher and mentor of that other remarkable mind of his time, St. Thomas Aquinas ” (from “The One Year Book of Saints” by Rev. Clifford Stevens). He is the Patron of Scientist. As a keen researcher of the nature, Albert “knew and wrote about 114 species of birds, 113 quadrupeds, 139 aquatic animals, 61 serpents and 49 worms. He was the first to mention the weasel and the artic bear, the first to speak intelligently about the reproductive functions of birds” (Source Here). Also, “his principal fame as a doctor resides in realizing the autonomy of philosophy. He used the philosophy of Aristotle to work for the science of theology” (ibd.).

The Grave of St. Albert, St. Andreas, Cologne

Albertus Magnus was born as the eldest son of the Count of Bollstädt, at Lauingen, Swabia, in the year 1205 or 1206. He went to the University in Padua, and joined the Order of Preachers in 1223. After completing his studies he taught theology at Hildesheim, Freiburg (Breisgau), Ratisbon, Strasburg, and Cologne, and later in Paris, where he received his Doctor’s Degree.

I am not familiar with his life and work so I prefer to quote from the entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to give you a picture about his original contributions to the learnedness of the Church:

An examination of Albert’s published writings reveals something of his understanding of philosophy in human culture. In effect he prepared a kind of philosophical encyclopedia that occupied him up to the last ten years of his life. He produced paraphrases of most of the works of Aristotle available to him. In some cases where he felt that Aristotle should have produced a work, but it was missing, Albert produced the work himself. If he had produced nothing else it would be necessary to say that he adopts the Aristotelian philosophical-scientific program as his own. Albert’s intellectual vision, however, was very great. Not only did he paraphrase “The Philosopher” (as the medievals called Aristotle) but Porphyry, Boethius, Peter Lombard, Gilbert de la Porrée, the Liber de causis, and Ps.-Dionysius. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Bible. In addition to all of this work of paraphrasing and commenting, in which Albert labored to prepare a kind of unified field theory of medieval Christian intellectual culture, he also wrote a number of works in which he developed his own philosophical-scientific-theological vision. Here one finds titles such as De unitate intellectus, Problemata determinate, De fato, De XV problematibus, De natura boni, De sacramentis, De incarnatione, De bono, De quattuor coaequaevis, De homine, and his unfinished Summa theologiae de mirabilis scientia Dei.

Albert’s labors resulted in the formation of what might be called a Christian reception of Aristotle in the Western Europe. Although Albert himself had a strong bias in favor of Neo-Platonism, his work on Aristotle shows him to have a deep understanding of the Aristotelian program. Along with his student Thomas Aquinas he was of the opinion that Aristotle and the kind of natural philosophy that he represented was no obstacle to the development of a Christian philosophical vision of the natural order. In order to establish this point Albert carefully dissected the method that Aristotle employed in undertaking the task of expounding natural philosophy. This method, Albert decided, is experientially based and proceeds to draw conclusions by the use of both inductive and deductive logic. Christian theology, as Albert found it taught in Europe rested firmly upon the revelation of Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers. Therefore, he reasoned, the two domains of human culture are distinct in their methodology and pose no threat to each other. Both can be pursued for their own sake. Philosophy was not to be valued only in terms of its ancillary relation to theology.

Pope Benedict paid tribute to this Saint in his address in the General Audience of March 24th. 2010, and explained in his usual lucidity the relationship between Faith and Science on the example of St. Albert:

Albert died in the cell of his monastery of the Holy Cross in Cologne in 1280, and very soon was venerated by his fellow brothers. The Church proposed him to the devotion of the faithful with his beatification in 1622 and his canonization in 1931, when Pope Pius XI proclaimed him Doctor of the Church. It was undoubtedly an appropriate recognition of this great man of God and illustrious scholar not only of the truths of the faith, but of very many other sectors of learning; in fact, glancing at the titles of his very numerous works, we realize that his culture was something prodigious, and that his encyclopedic interest led him to be concerned not only with philosophy and theology, as other contemporaries, but also with every other discipline then known, from physics to chemistry, from astronomy to mineralogy, from botany to zoology. For this reason Pope Pius XII named him patron of cultivators of the natural sciences and he is also called “Doctor universalis” precisely because of the vastness of his interest and learning.

Of course, the scientific methods adopted by St. Albert the Great are not those that were to be affirmed in subsequent centuries. His method consisted simply in observation, description and classification of phenomenons studied, but thus he opened the door for future works.

He still has much to teach us. Above all, St. Albert shows that between faith and science there is no opposition, notwithstanding some episodes of misunderstanding recorded in history. A man of faith and prayer, as St. Albert the Great was, can cultivate serenely the study of the natural sciences and progress in the knowledge of the micro and macro cosmos, discovering the laws proper of matter, because all this concurs to feed the thirst for and love of God. The Bible speaks to us of creation as the first language through which God — who is supreme intelligence, who is Logos — reveals to us something of himself. The Book of Wisdom, for example, states that the phenomena of nature, gifted with grandeur and beauty, are as the works of an artist, through which, by analogy, we can know the Author of creation (cf. Wisdom 13:5). With a classic similarity in the Medieval Age and the Renaissance one can compare the natural world with a book written by God, which we read on the basis of several approaches of the sciences (cf. Address to the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 31, 2008). How many scientists, in fact, in the wake of St. Albert the Great, have carried forward their research inspired by wonder and gratitude before a world that, in the eyes of scholars and believers, seemed and seems the good work of a wise and loving Creator! Scientific study is transformed then into a hymn of praise. It was well understood by a great astrophysicist of our times, whose cause of beatification has been introduced, Enrico Medi, who wrote: “Oh, you mysterious galaxies … I see you, I calculate you, I understand you, I study you and discover you, I penetrate you and I am immersed in you. From you I take the light and I do science, I take the motion and do science, I take the sparkling of colors and make poetry; I take you stars in my hands, and trembling in the unity of my being I raise you beyond yourselves, and in prayer I hand you to the Creator, that only through me you stars can adore” (The Works. Hymn to Creation).

St. Albert the Great reminds us that between science and faith there is friendship, and that the men of science can undertake, through their vocation to the study of nature, a genuine and fascinating journey of sanctity.

His extraordinary openness of mind is revealed also in a cultural operation that he undertook with success, that is, in the acceptance and evaluation of the thought of Aristotle. Spreading at the time of St. Albert, in fact, was knowledge of numerous works of this great Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century before Christ, above all in the realm of ethics and metaphysics. They demonstrated the force of reason, explained with lucidity and clarity the meaning and structure of reality, of its intelligibility, the value and end of human actions. St. Albert the Great opened the door for the complete reception of the philosophy of Aristotle in Medieval philosophy and theology, a reception elaborated later in a definitive way by St. Thomas. This reception of a philosophy, let us say, pagan and pre-Christian was an authentic cultural revolution for that time. And yet, many Christian thinkers feared Aristotle’s philosophy, non-Christian philosophy, above all because, presented by its Arab commentators, it was interpreted in a way of appearing, at least in some points, as altogether irreconcilable with the Christian faith. Thus a dilemma was posed: are faith and reason in opposition to one another or not?

Here is one of the great merits of St. Albert: with scientific rigor he studied the works of Aristotle, convinced that everything that is rational is compatible with the faith revealed in sacred Scriptures. In other words, St. Albert the Great, thus contributed to the formation of an autonomous philosophy, different from theology and united to it only by the unity of the truth. Thus was born in the 13th century a clear distinction between these two learnings, philosophy and theology, which, in dialogue between them, cooperate harmoniously in the discovery of the authentic vocation of man, thirsty for truth and blessedness: and it is above all theology, defined by St. Albert as “affective science,” which indicates to man his call to eternal joy, a joy that gushes from full adherence to the truth.

St. Albert the Great was able to communicate these concepts in a simple and comprehensible way. Authentic son of St. Dominic, he preached willingly to the people of God, which were conquered by his word and the example of his life.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray to the Lord so that there will never be lacking in the Holy Church learned, pious and wise theologians like St. Albert the Great and may he help each one of us to make our own the “formula of sanctity” that he followed in his life: “To want everything that I want for the glory of God, to wish and do everything only and always for his glory.”

And here I add my resounding Amen, and wish you all our dear readers a nice day.

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3 Responses to St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus): Friendship between Faith and Science

  1. annem040359 says:

    In New Haven, CT, USA, there is a Catholic college that has been named after this saint.

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  2. rebrites says:

    Albert “knew and wrote about 114 species of birds, 113 quadrupeds, 139 aquatic animals, 61 serpents and 49 worms. He was the first to mention the weasel and the artic bear.”
    All the philosophy and theology taxonomies aside, I want to know what a medieval bishop had to say about 49 worms. Which worms? Did he find them all himself? And the first mentions of weasels and arctic bears — what did he write? And why?

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  3. teresa says:

    Rebrites, I am not familiar with St. Albert, but perhaps I shall try to say something general about the medieval culture, and Gertrude can correct, confirm or expand, if there is need to. According to what I learned from my teachers, the medieval clergy were not only responsible for the spiritual life of the Church, they were at the same time the learned class, they exerted more function than we would imagine: they were jurists, medicals, poets… The famous love story Tristan and Isolde told in vernacular verses (which became the source of Wagner’s same named opera), was written by a clergyman for example. So it was not unusual for St. Albert to investigate into the nature.

    As for his researches, I would say he certainly didn’t do the so called field observations like the biologists do today, His sources must have been mainly books. Perhaps he heard someone relating (orally) weasels and arctic bears and he wrote it down.

    His works are edited twice, one by the French (the Borgnet edition) and the other, a recent edition, by the Germans. He wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s De animalibus, I assume in this book his mention of the different species of animals can be found.

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