St. Albertus Magnus, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Fr. Richard Schenk, OP
The feast of St. Albert the Great is celebrated throughout the Church each year on November 15, and this year marks the 750th anniversary of Albert"s consecration as bishop of Regensburg (1260). Not surprisingly, that city on the Danube is marking this special anniversary with a month of celebrations: an exhibit of art and historical documents, a series of expert lectures, several festive liturgies, and important guests like the Dominican Archbishop of Prague, Dominic Duka OP. DSPT, too, has special reason to commemorate this feast, as the school"s kernel and origins are to be found in the St. Albert College Corporation. The beautiful icon that Fr. Brendan McAnerney "wrote" for the DSPT chapel shows the scholar Albertus Magnus holding the chapel of St. Albert"s Priory in Oakland, the "south campus" of DSPT and its earlier home.
The story of who Albert was can be summarized briefly enough in its external details. He was a German theologian, philosopher, scientist and churchman, born before 1201 plausibly in Lauingen (on Bavarian-Swabian Danube) to the knightly family “de Lauingen”; he died in Cologne on November 15, 1280: a long life for medieval times. He studied at Padua, where he joined the Dominicans in the 1220s, moving to Cologne for his initial theological formation. He then served as a conventual lector from the 1230s on for the priories and their priory schools at Hildesheim, Freiberg (Saxony), Regensburg and Strasbourg. In the early 1240s Albert was sent by the Order to Paris, becoming a master of theology in 1245.
Soon after his Parisian regency as a professor of theology (1245-48), Albert began his extracurricular project of paraphrases (at points more corrective and complementary than the term "paraphrase" suggests) for the entire works of Aristotle. Albert’s goal was to provide a comprehensive account of natural knowledge, utilizing Neoplatonic and Arabic sources and his own deliberate observations of the natural and cultural worlds. In its scope, critical methodology and detail, his learning was legendary (thus the name given him by his contemporaries, “Albertus Magnus,” Albert the Great), but his work was not without critics, including Dominicans, due to its at least seeming secularity.
In May 1248 Albert joined in the condemnation of the Talmud at Paris, before returning to Cologne (1248 - 1254) to become the founding lector of the Dominican studium generale there, the kernel of the later University of Cologne. Albert’s juridical role (in at least 20 known cases) as the binding mediator between conflicted parties, notably between ruling prelates and citizenry, began during this period. Among Albert’s students in Cologne was (alongside Albert"s "favorite student", Ulrich of Strasbourg) Thomas Aquinas, who had begun his Dominican formation at Paris 1245/46. While serving as something of an academic assistant (“baccalaureus”) to Albert, Thomas transcribed Albert’s innovative courses on the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.
Even as provincial of the German Dominicans (1254-57), Albert continued his project of using his own words to make the full range of natural learning intelligible to the West. At the General Chapter of Valenciennes in 1259, Albert was joined by Thomas Aquinas and three other Dominican scholars to shape the Dominican statutes for a form of religious observance marked by academic study. Albert kept at his academic and field work, even while acting bishop of Regensburg (1260-62), as a familiar guest of the papal curia at Viterbo and Orvieto (1261-63), and as general preacher for the crusades (1263-64). Despite episcopal status, “dominus Albertus” returned to Dominican community and teaching in the prioral schools, first at Würzburg, briefly at Strasbourg, and, for the final ten years of his life, in Cologne, where he also served as chief author of a theological Summa. Albert lectured on all four Gospels and at least nine books of the Old Testament. While providing inspiration for the even more Neoplatonic (Proclus) “German Albert School” of the 13th/14th centuries (including Meister Eckhart) and the “Albertinism” of the 15th, Albert’s theological legacy is his methodological insistence upon a form of academic theology that provides for the relative autonomy and importance of non-theological disciplines and non-Christian sources. Known to near contemporaries not only as Albertus Magnus, but also as the doctor universalis or doctor expertus, Albert was beatified in 1622 and declared a saint and doctor of the Church in 1931, just prior to the foundation of St. Albert"s College.
Some thirty years ago, the Dominican scholar Yves Congar contributed a remarkable essay to a Festschrift for Albertus Magnus on the occasion of the seventh centenary of the saint"s death (1280-1980). Congar reminded us there of the ideal for a college that the Doctor universalis had formulated: in dulcedine societatis quaerere veritatem (“To search for the truth in the joy of community”). Congar also pointed out, however, the original context of Albert"s remark, so characteristic of this frank Swabian friar: Albert might well have been complaining that some of his Dominican confrères were trying to inhibit just this good. The background of the struggle was over the proper place of academic theology, philosophy, and scientific inquiry in the friars’ intellectual life and in their plan of study or, indeed, the general question as to the proper relation between faith and reason.
In the same year as Congar"s article, Pope John Paul II made his first journey to Germany as the Roman Pontiff to take part in the commemoration of the anniversary of Albert"s death. Directly on the centenary itself, on November 15, 1980, the pope held what was arguably the most acclaimed talk of that pastoral visit, a talk addressed to academics and students gathered in the cathedral of Cologne. The address called upon the academic ideal that Albert embodied to renew the affirmation of both faith and reason in our own day: “Albert acknowledged rational science even as he made it his own in a framework, in which it retained its autonomy, now reaffirmed, while continuing to stand in relation to the measure and final meaning of the faith”.
This attempt in 1980 to identify the shape and goal of academic learning in tandem with the Christian faith by looking back to the life and teaching of Albertus Magnus was impressive, but not altogether new. It was already a chief factor leading up over four years’ time to the canonization in 1931, which by the papal bull of Pius XI, "In thesauris sapientiae", on December 16th of that year, was joined to the proclamation of Albert as doctor of the Church.
This earlier attempt to draw inspiration and orientation from Albert"s work and vision was also the driving force in the following year, 1932, behind the establishment near Berkeley, California, of the College of St. Albert the Great. It was this institution that grew into the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology after becoming a member school of the Graduate Theological Union. The annual feast of St. Albert invites us all to imagine again the potential of a retrieval of what made Albert great. By recalling Albert’s innovations and his tenacity in developing them, we should, however, be encouraged again towards the confidence that, in our own day, too, it is both possible and pressing to effectively seek the truth (“quaerere veritatem”) in a community of scholars (“in dulcedine societatis”).