Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
St. Albert the Great was considered the “wonder and the miracle of his age” by his contemporaries. He was an assiduous Dominican whose accomplishments and gifts to the Church would be difficult to exaggerate. Born in c. 1206 and joining the Order of Preachers in 1223, Albert quickly became a master of almost every academic subject. Not withstanding the standards of his own time, he became a pioneer of the natural sciences –- both empirical and philosophical. His teachings on nature and theology were revolutionary, and he captured the attention of a young and taciturn Dominican –- St. Thomas Aquinas. While surpassing all his contemporaries in intellect and cogency, it was his own student that managed to shine brighter than he. If Albert blazed the path, then it was Aquinas who reached and held the summit. Then, tragically, when the quick flash of Aquinas’ life was over, it was Albert who defended him and held him up as a beacon of light for the whole Church. St. Albert the Great was a teacher, a bishop, and forerunner to some of the greatest theological gifts the Church has received.
After joining the Dominicans, Albert went to Paris in 1245 and successfully received his doctorate. He then began teaching in Paris and then in Cologne, Germany. It was during his time in Cologne that he noticed a young man named Thomas. The quiet student was nicked named “Dumb Ox” by his peers, because of his weight and the mistaken notion his silence was due to an obtuse mind. In time, Albert realized the great acumen of the young man, and Albert took him as a disciple.
God & Nature
What drew Aquinas –- and the praise and condemnation of others –- to St. Albert was his exhaustive study of nature and God. Though it was over a millennium since the birth of Christ, the Church still struggled to define nature and its role in Creation. In essence, different theological camps disagreed on how to communicate a supposedly autonomous nature –- with its own laws and movements –- and an omnipotent God.
If it snows, is God making it snow or are there self-moving natural causes for the snow? Though a simplistic example, the relationship between God and nature is a deciding point between theology and science or even faith and reason. Often times, certain groups worried that granting nature independent causes would detract from God’s glory or resurrect pagan ideals. At the center of many related controversies, was the pagan philosopher Aristotle. The writings of Aristotle had come originally to Catholicism through Jewish and Islamic scholars, which detrimentally imported a good deal of erroneous commentary. The errors –- which ranged from a misunderstanding of Aristotle to thinking Aristotle was infallible –- colored the Catholic mind against the Greek philosopher on many counts. Albert’s indefatigable spirit strove to show that Aristotle’s account of nature could import a great service to the Church and her theology. Though he wrote an entire chapter entitled The Errors of Aristotle, Albert showed that the principles articulated in Aristotle’s natural philosophy could be harmonious placed within the cosmos described by Scripture.
The Church & Science
The first major gift Catholicism has inherited from the riches of St. Albert’s pursuit is the idea that the Church and science are not at war with one another. Though nature moves by its own laws, the Author of those laws is the same Author of Holy Scripture –- this stance is a great affirmation to the belief in a harmony between faith and reason. The philosophical foundations for the Church discussing issues like evolution, the age of the earth, psychology, the origins of the universe, etc., all point back to the early erudition of St. Albert the Great. The concept of nature having its own causes, and that those causes could be studied via experiments, was so revolutionary that many could not decipher between scientific experiments and magic; thus, St. Albert was once accused of being a magician.
The second achievement of St. Albert was Scholasticism and his pupil St. Thomas Aquinas. The Scholastic approach was unique in the sense that it centered itself on a true belief in the harmony of faith and reason, and in a well-ordered cosmos with one Divine Author. It was precisely this holistic gathering of all the sciences under one divine science that earned the scholastic St. Albert the title of Universal Doctor. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance Scholasticism still holds within Holy Mother Church. Pope Leo XII declared “it is the proper and singular gift of Scholastic theologians to bind together human knowledge and Divine knowledge in the very closest bonds.” Pope Sixtus V confirmed Scholasticism “has an apt coherence of facts and causes, connected with one another; an order and arrangement, like soldiers drawn up in battle array … by these the light is divided from darkness, and truth from falsehood. The lies of heretics, wrapped up in many wiles and fallacies, being stripped of their coverings, are bared and laid open.”
And while St. Albert must be remembered in his own right, we must acknowledge the magnificence of his student –- St. Thomas Aquinas. And after Thomas’ sudden death on the way to the Council of Lyons, St. Albert declared that the Light of the Church had gone out. Later, the Church bestowed upon St. Thomas the title of Angelic Doctor. The Church only continued to esteem the scholar and his scholasticism: the “chief and special glory” was having his Summa Theologica laid upon the altar as a source of inspiration at the Council of Trent. He was then declared the patron of All Catholic Schools and Universities by Pope Leo XIII.
Behind all the appropriate adulation for St. Thomas, his Summa, and all it represents, is the genius and perseverance of St. Albert.
St. Albert the Great, scientist, philosopher, theologian, pioneer, pray for us.