St. Anselm of Canterbury, Bishop and Doctor

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Today, April 21, is the Memorial of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Bishop and Doctor of the Church. Anselm is remembered especially for three important reasons: he developed the ontological argument for the existence of God; he developed the satisfaction theory of redemption; he was instrumental in the investiture controversy of the 12th century.

Anselm was born in Aosta in northwest Italy in 1033. His father wanted him to enter politics and opposed his decision to enter the Benedictine monastic life. Anselm was intent, however, and took his vows at the Monastery of Bec in Caen in Normandy, France in 1060 or 1061. Recognized for his intellectual gifts, Anselm was named abbot of Bec only two or three years later, in 1063. In 1077/78 Anselm wrote his Proslogion in which he developed the ontological argument for the existence of God. Anselm argued that everyone, even a fool, has in his or her mind the idea of a being greater than which no other being can be conceived. Such a being must actually exist, for if it did not, it would not be a being greater than which no other being can be conceived. Basically, the idea of a being greater than which no other being can be conceived implies within itself its existence. While the ontological argument has not won over many converts and few today find it very persuasive, it was accepted by such great minds as Descartes and Spinoza.

In 1093, Anselm was visiting England to inspect lands that had been gifted to the Bec monastery. During this visit, William II Rufus, King of England and son of William the Conqueror, named Anselm archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm accepted the position and immediately became embroiled in the investiture controversy, where secular kings and emperors claimed the right to invest bishops with the pallium and crozier, the symbols of their ecclesiastical authority (thus implying sovereignty over the Church). Anselm refused to accept these symbols from the king, and even suffered exile from his archdiocese twice over his career. The controversy was temporarily resolved in 1107, and Anselm returned, but it would kick up again over the centuries. (Even today, The Chinese Communist Party has a voice in who will be a bishop in China.)

In 1099, Anselm completed his manuscript for Cur Deus Homo? (“Why Did God Become Man?), in which he develops the satisfaction theory for redemption. Anselm’s theology was based on the 12th century feudal structure of society, which held that those who commit a crime owe restitution based on the status of the offender and the offended, so an offense against a king would require a greater degree of satisfaction than an offense against a peasant. But God is infinite, so an offense against an infinite God by finite humans could never be adequately satisfied. The means for reconciling finite humanity to an infinite God could only be a God-Man, Jesus Christ, who was capable of obtaining infinite merits through His passion, death, and resurrection. Anselm’s theology and philosophy carried the day throughout much of the Middle Ages, and he is called the father of scholasticism.

Anselm enjoyed peace in the last two years of his life, dying at Canterbury on April 21, 1109. There is some question about when, exactly, he was canonized. Some scholars point to the years between 1163 and 1170, based on St. Thomas Beckett’s request of Pope Alexander III for Anselm’s canonization, and to pilgrimages to a shrine that had been established for him at that time, though there is no formal record of his canonization in these years. Others point to 1494, when his cult was formally recognized by Pope Alexander VI. In 1720, Pope Clement XI declared Anselm a Doctor of the Church. He is often called doctor magnificus (“Magnificent Doctor”).

Father, you called Saint Anselm to study and teach the sublime truths you have revealed. Let your gift of faith come to the aid of our understanding and open our hearts to your truth. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

(from The Liturgy of the Hours for April 21, Memorial of Saint Anselm of Canterbury.)

Sources: Saint Anselm of Canterbury – The satisfaction theory of redemption | Britannica

Anselm of Canterbury – Wikipedia

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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