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
"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
Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).