St. Albert and Aristotle: The Gift of Faith and Reason
If you asked Catholics to name the Church’s greatest theologian, most would wholeheartedly agree on St. Thomas Aquinas. From his Summa Theologiae, we have the most important logical compendium of Christian theology and philosophy. Yet did you know that a driving force behind the brilliance of Thomas Aquinas was an equally magnificent scholar? Few people are aware of St. Albert, otherwise known as Albertus Magnus, or Albert the Great. It was Albert the Great who spoke of Thomas Aquinas, "We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world”. Yet despite the depth and breadth of Albert’s work, he remains more “silent” to most Catholics.
Albert the Great is generally regarded as the consummate “Renaissance Man” ahead of his time. He lived at the height of Middle Ages and died in 1280. Albert was a master of philosophy, theology, and science. Over his lifetime, he wrote thirty-eight volumes of work. For his contributions, he was made a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pius XI, one of only 35 Doctors in all of Catholic history.
The Church is indebted to Albert the Great for his thorough exegesis of Aristotle. At the time during which Albert lived, Aristotle had been solely preserved by the Arabs -- especially through the philosophers Averroes and Avicenna. Albert recognized that Aristotle was a kind of natural philosopher. Ultimately, Albert sought to translate and paraphrase the entirety of Aristotle texts and synthesize it for a Christian worldview in the West.
From Aristotle’s example, Albert the Great also understood the concept of observing and experimenting with nature, instead of reading it from science books like other scientists of his time. In this way, he was ahead of his peers in promoting the scientific method, which has characterized the natural sciences since the 17th century. Because of his contribution to this discipline, Albert was proclaimed the patron saint of natural sciences in 1941 by Pius XII.
Why is this important? Pope Benedict XVI remarked that “Saint Albert shows us that faith is not opposed to reason, and that the created world can be seen as a book written by God and capable of being read in its own way by the various sciences. His study of Aristotle brought out the difference between the sciences of philosophy and theology, while insisting that both cooperate in enabling us to discover our vocation to truth and happiness, a vocation which finds its fulfilment in eternal life”.
While critics of the Catholicism try to suggest the Church is opposed to reason, St. Albert was able to show otherwise. By fusing Aristotle’s natural philosophy with Divine Revelation, Albert the Great firmly believed and proved that faith and reason were compatible and complementary, and from this light brought forth that greatest of Church teachers, Thomas Aquinas. In this Year of Faith, maybe it’s time to get acquainted with these great Medieval minds?
It is said that Albert the Great had an encounter with the Blessed Mother, who entreated him to enter religious life. Here is the Marian Prayer of St. Albert the Great.
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.”
For note, Mary,
for you have found grace,
not taken it as Lucifer tried to so.
You have found grace,
not lost it as Adam did.
You have found favor with God
because you desired and sought it.
You have found uncreated Grace,
that is, God himself became your Son,
and with the Grace
you have found and obtained every uncreated good.”