A patron saint for scientists

It's often said there is antagonism between faith and science, but in many respects it's an artificial quarrel. Many scientists believe in God. Many religious believers marvel over the wonders of the universe revealed by science. And if any man bore witness that faith and science can coexist, it was St. Albert the Great.

St. Albert wanted to see and understand the workings of nature firsthand.

"The aim of natural science is not simply to accept the statements of others," he wrote, "but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature." Insisting that "experiment is the only safe guide" in scientific inquiry, he looked upon the whole world as his laboratory. In his book on geography he taught how latitude affects climate. In his book on zoology he disproved the colorful but wildly implausible fables about the animal kingdom that were current in his day (for instance, that barnacle geese are hatched from trees).

Albert was the first man to describe accurately a Greenland whale - and to get firsthand information about the creature, he joined a whale hunt in Friesland. During his 40 years as a teacher, he wrote more than 40 books, including groundbreaking works on botany, astronomy, physics, mineralogy and chemistry.

In his spare time he taught theology. About the year 1247, a quiet, obese, young Italian signed up for one of Albert's classes; the new student was St. Thomas Aquinas. Albert suspected Thomas was bright, but he couldn't be sure. Most of Albert's students were eager to show off what they knew (or thought they knew) in class; Thomas, on the other hand, never joined the raucous discussions. His fellow students called him "the dumb ox" because he was a large, silent presence in the classroom. One day Albert challenged Thomas and another student to discuss a difficult point in theology. The first student presented an explanation of the problem he thought was unassailable. Then it was Thomas' turn. His approach to the question demolished his rival's solution, then offered an explanation that was intelligent, clear, original and undoubtedly correct. When Thomas had finished, Albert said to his class, "You call him 'the dumb ox.' I tell you, the bellowing of this ox will be heard throughout the world."

Albert had hoped he would spend his whole life studying and teaching, but in 1260 Pope Alexander IV appointed him Bishop of Regensburg in Germany. It was a difficult assignment. The previous bishop had been so hopelessly corrupt, the pope had removed him from office. Drunkenness, sexual misconduct and greed were widespread among the clergy, and the local gentry were just as bad. The clergy resisted Albert's attempts to restore religious discipline. The laity sneered at his acts of charity and modest style of living. In the end, Albert's good intentions accomplished nothing. He was a saint and a scholar, not a reforming administrator. After two unsuccessful years in office, he resigned.

Sometime in 1278, Albert was delivering a lecture when his memory failed. It was the onset of dementia, perhaps Alzheimer's disease. During the last two years of his life, Albert's once-great mind became increasingly clouded. He died peacefully sitting in a large wooden chair, fully dressed in his habit, a warm throw rug over his knees, while his brother Dominicans gathered around him and sang "Salve Regina." As they sang, Albert the Great slipped away to eternity.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2012) and St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found … Then Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015