Celebrating St. Albert the Great

November 15 brought word in the press of a new think-tank that was being established in Washington, DC — the awkwardly-named Center for Inquiry-Transnational.

The first thing the Center did was to issue a manifesto. Titled “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism,” the manifesto bemoaned the “disdain for science” that is “aggravated by excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies.” Speakers at the opening press conference criticized the media for “distorting scientific consensus in the name of journalistic balance.”

Perhaps one can be forgiven for wondering if these people inhabit the same planet the rest of us do. Anyone who has been involved in the debate over stem cell research and cloning knows two things. First, proponents have made emotional, not rational, arguments, and have even stooped to distorting (or ignoring) scientific facts. For instance, no reputable embryologist denies that human life begins in the single-cell stage (the zygote). Yet proponents of embryonic stem cell research continue to deny that a human being is being killed when an embryo is “disaggregated” to get at the inner cell mass. Likewise, proponents confuse the public by claiming to ban “cloning” when they, in fact, amend state constitutions (as they did in Missouri) to provide for it through the simple expedient of dishonestly defining “cloning” (not as the creation of a living human zygote but at implantation in a woman’s womb).

Second, the media has been anything but balanced. Rather, by and large, it has devoted itself to promoting the proponents’ agenda and doing its best to silence the opposition.

It is ridiculous for those who form organizations like the Center to claim that religious people confuse science with faith. But it is richly ironic that the claim was made on the same day as the feast day — November 15 — of one of the greatest scientists in history, St. Albertus Magnus (or, St. Alfred the Great).

St. Albert lived in the Middle Ages (in the 1200’s). He was the first and greatest commentator on the newly-rediscovered works of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher and natural scientist. St. Albert was also the teacher, and mentor, of the greatest philosopher since Aristotle — St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Albert began to do something new in the middle ages — he based his conclusions about the natural world on experimentation. He was the first scholastic scholar to recognize that philosophy as a science (consisting, he concluded, of three parts — natural science, metaphysics, and mathematics) was separate from theology. Thus, the writings of the Fathers of the Church from the pre-middle ages on the natural sciences were not binding dogma, but were subject to examination, critique and modification.

Thus he wrote: “In things pertaining to faith and morals, [Saint and Church Father] Augustine is more to be believed than the philosophers, if they disagree; but if we are discussing medicine, I would rather believe [the pagan physician] Galen, or Hippocrates; and if we are talking about the nature of things, I would rather believe Aristotle or someone else expert in natural science.”

And St. Albert was perfectly willing to examine, critique and modify the teachings of Aristotle about the natural world. As one scholar noted: “Albert’s [treatise] On Animals, as well as his other writings as a naturalist, are filled with remarks like ‘I saw,’ ‘I observed,’ ‘I witnessed,’ ‘I have consulted.’” These are surely the marks of a true scientist, i.e., one who bases his conclusions about material facts upon experimentation and observation. Could the Center have reasonably ask for anything more?

And St. Albert is not alone. “Catholic scientists” are scientists who happen to be Catholic. Their conclusions about matters of faith do not distort what their eyes tell them about the material world. It is true that such scientists will expect to find that examination of the natural world will not contradict their faith, for they, as does anyone with a “world view” of any kind, believe all truth is one, that is, that truth does not contradict truth. But they do not insert theological conclusions into scientific analysis. Rather, they ask, as did St. Albert, what can I determine, based on scientific principles, to be facts? One wonders if an ideologically-driven institute like the Center can hope to do the same.

The Catholic Church long ago gave St. Albert the sobriquet of “Universal Doctor.” It also designated him as the patron saint of physical and natural scientists. The Center has nothing to fear from such “religious scientists.” In fact, it has much to learn from St. Albert about how to separate ideology from science.

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