Albert the Great, Pray for Us!

On the feast of St. Albert the Great, bishop on Church Doctor, from the Lay Witness archives:

To understand the life of a busy man of the Middle Ages like St. Albert the Great, it is important to remember that at the high point of Catholic culture, Europe was a great deal more of a single piece than it is now. We may fly from Paris to Cologne in an hour; it would take St. Albert a lot longer, but when he got to the university in the new city he could teach and communicate in the same Latin language he spoke in the last.

Born in 1206 in Lauingen in Swabia and entering the Dominican Order at Padua in 1223, St. Albert made Germany the center of the whirlwind of teaching, preaching, and administration that took him back and forth between Cologne, Paris, and Rome. He was bishop of Ratisbon for a while and preached a crusade in Bohemia. Where he ever found time to complete his voluminous writings or to acquire his immense learning in all fields is anybody’s guess. Ulrich of Strasbourg called him the marvel of his age.

Like many saints, and particularly like his most famous pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas (Albert predicted that the bellowing of that “dumb ox” would one day fill the world!), Albert was always at the center of controversy. The struggle to include the method of philosophical disputation (dialectic) as a legitimate and necessary part of theology had been practically won (over the opposition of some other great saints!), but Albert was taking it further. Not only did he want to recognize philosophy itself as a discipline distinct from theology (“Distinguish to unite,” says Jacques Maritain), but he meant to do it by way of the writings of Aristotle. As a result, he had to work very hard to convince people, from Pope down, that a sober assimilation of the truths understood and taught by Aristotle would not lead to the heresies of some contemporary Aristotelians, who denied the immorality of the soul and the freedom of the will. Albert worked untiringly to claim Aristotle’s truth for the Catholic faith to which he was so unreservedly committed.

Bold commitment to the truth is the key to St. Albert’s special sanctity. Truth comes in different forms, he taught: some of it is specially revealed by God and is to be accepted by faith; some of it is there for human reason to see and demonstrate through its own God-given light (philosophy—the existence of God and the immorality of the soul are in this category, he taught); and some truth can be achieved only through much experience and patient observation (natural sciences). Against many who were suspicious of science, Albert showed that all truth is God’s truth; truth about the migration of animals, the color spectrum of rainbows, or the coats of animals is precious because it speaks of God’s creation. St. Albert rolled up his sleeves and got into all with a breadth of interest astounding to us in this age of specialization.

We can only speculate on what this patron of the natural sciences would be doing were he in the body in the twenty-first century, but we must try to hear his voice within the communion of saints. It is perhaps not overly fanciful to image him urging us to avoid the idle spinning of the “theologians” who would unravel the whole cloth of the faith, prodding us to pursue theology and philosophy according to the mind of St. Thomas, and, waiving a copy of Chaos or A Brief History of Time, directing us to a renewed and robust, though critical and philosophically informed, appreciation of the wonders of creation in dialogue with our contemporaries. What is certain is that he would tell us to love the truth with all our hearts.

From the November 1988 issue of Lay Witness, by Roger B. Duncan

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