St. Albert the Great: Patron of Scientists and Defender of Faith and Reason

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Born circa 1193, St. Albert the Great was one of the greatest intellectuals of the Catholic Church; in fact, he’s one of only 35 Saints honored with the title of “Doctor” of the Church.  A German Dominican friar and later a bishop, in his early life he studied at the University of Padua.  By some accounts, a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary prompted him to take Holy Orders sometime around 1223. He then began to study theology at Bologna, and later to serve as a lecturer at Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg, and Hildesheim.

In 1245 he became the first German Dominican to become a master of theology, studying and lecturing under Gueric of Saint-Quentin, successor of St. John Giles.  In his earlier years at the University of Padua he had received instruction in the writings of Aristotle, and during his doctoral studies in Paris, he became increasingly convinced of the importance of Aristotle to the Latin-speaking West.

It was during this time that a young Dominican named Thomas Aquinas, who himself would go on to become a Saint and Doctor of the Church, began to study under St. Albert; his meticulous notes on St. Albert’s lectures regarding the Niomachean Ethics of Aristotle are preserved to this day.  This marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship and scholarly collaboration between the two, and in latter years St. Albert would move to defend the orthodoxy and teachings of his friend and pupil.

During his time in Cologne his reputation as scientist began to grow.  He carried on a number of experiments in chemistry and physics in a makeshift laboratory, and built an impressive collection of plants, insects, and chemical compounds.  Many of his scientific understandings were so advanced for the age in which he was living that he kept many of his experiments and investigations unpublished; even so, many regarded him as some sort of magician or alchemist because of his remarkable insights and theories.

In 1899, St. Albert’s writings were gathered together and totaled 38 volumes spanning an astounding array of topics, including logic, theology, zoology, astronomy, botany, physiology, justice, law, and love.  While the intensity of his mind and the depths of his knowledge are impressive, it was his passionate belief that faith and reason don’t simply co-exist, but complement each other by their very natures, that is perhaps the most enduring and relevant.  He was methodical and exacting in his pursuit of knowledge, not simply because of his keen mind and curious nature, but because he understood intuitively that all of God’s creation spoke of Him, and that even the smallest and most seemingly insignificant bit of scientific knowledge could illuminate for us the face God.  It’s perhaps for that reason that he was named the patron Saint of scientists when he was canonized by Pope Pius the XI in 1931.

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