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Alexander Natalis

French historian and theologian, of the Order of St. Dominic, b. at Rouen, 19 January, 1639; d. in Paris, 21 August, 1724

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Alexander Natalis (or NOEL ALEXANDRE), a French historian and theologian, of the Order of St. Dominic, b. at Rouen, January 19, 1639; d. in Paris, August 21, 1724. He made his early studies at the Dominican College of Rouen and, after entering the Dominican Order in that city, May 9, 1655, studied philosophy and theology in the convent of Saint Jacques, Paris, where he afterwards taught for twelve years, during which time he gained some renown as a preacher. In 1672, at the wish of his superiors, he obtained the licentiate from the Sorbonne, and in 1675, the doctorate. About this time he attracted much attention by writing against Launoy on the subject of simony. Persuaded by that generous promoter of learning, the great French minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, to enter the society of savants of which the Abbe Colbert (later Archbishop of Rouen) was the central figure, he lectured before it on particular events of history with such success that he was urged to write a complete history after the method that he had followed in his lecture. He yielded to this wish of the French scholar and published at Paris, in 1677, the first volume, bearing the general title “Selecta historiae ecclesiasticae capita et in loca ejusdem insignia dissertationes historicae, criticae, dogmaticae”, in which he treated of the first century of Christianity, and in 1686, the twenty-fourth volume in which he closed his studies of New Testament history with dissertations on the Council of Trent. In the next few years he published six octavo volumes of dissertations on the history of the Old Testament. His directness and conciseness, his critical acumen, and his manner of viewing history and dividing it into special studies (then quite original, although now common enough) won for him the approbation of the learned. The first volumes of the history brought him letters of commendation and praise from Pope Innocent XI and many cardinals, but later volumes gave offense at Rome because of the author’s Gallicanism, and Innocent XI finally forbade (July 13, 1684) the faithful to read the history under pain of excommunication. In the preface to the third edition (Paris, 1699, eight folio volumes) Father Alexander submitted fully to the judgment of the Holy See, and in some scholia added to the dissertations showed that in some instances he had been criticized and judged unjustly. Father Roncaglia (of the Clerks Regular) brought out at Lucca, in 1734, a sixth edition of the work in nine folio volumes, in which he gave the text unaltered, but with the addition of paragraphs and dissertations correcting the most offensive statements.

The work thus corrected was removed from the Index by Pope Benedict XIII, and many editions were thereafter given to the public. The best is that of Archbishop Mansi of Lucca, in nine folio volumes (Lucca, 1749), who added many explanatory notes. An anonymous writer in two supplementary volumes carried the history into the eighteenth century, and added various dissertations from the pens of other historians. The work thus completed appeared at Venice in 1778, in eleven folio volumes, and at Bingen, 1785-90, in twenty quarto volumes. Upon the completion of his historical dissertation Father Alexander turned his attention for some years to strictly theological studies, and in 1693 published at Paris in ten octavo volumes a commentary on the “Catechismus Romanus” entitled “Theologia dogmatica et moralis” to which he added for preachers an Index Concinnatorius, distributing the whole work into sketches of sermons for all the Sundays and feastdays of the year. The work has also two appendixes containing valuable letters from his pen on moral theology and casuistry, and many papal, synodal, and episcopal documents bearing on the disputes of the time. Later editions of the work appeared at Paris in 1703 two folio volumes, in 1743, four quarto volumes, and at Einsiedeln in 1768, ten volumes octavo. His next work of importance was a handbook for preachers: “Praecepta et regulae ad praedicatores verbi divini informandos”, which first appeared in Paris in 1701, and last at Augsburg in 1763, in octavo. This was followed (1703-10) by a commentary “Commentarius literalis et moralis” on one hundred and sixty Gospels (for Sundays and feastdays) and on the Epistles of the New Testament, which has often been reedited in various forms. In 1704, Father Alexander fell into Jansenism by signing the Cas de Conscience, but he soon retracted. Before this he carried on a bitter controversy with Father Daniel, S.J., on the Dominican and Jesuit doctrines on Probabilism, Grace, and Predestination, as compared with the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas on these subjects, which was terminated by the King, who silenced both parties. In 1706, having been elected Provincial of the Dominican Province of France, he was obliged to interrupt his literary labors. Freed from his administrative duties in 1710, he set himself to the task of writing a commentary on the prophetical books of the Old Testament. In 1712 he was forced to lay aside his pen by a weakness of the eyes which finally resulted in total blindness. He died of old age in the convent of Saint Jacques in Paris, having enjoyed throughout his long and busy literary life a close intimacy with all the learned men of his time, especially with Cardinal Noris.

While writing the important works noticed above Father Alexander published several dissertations in which he showed (I) that St. Thomas was the author of the “Summa Theologica”; (2) that St. Thomas was the author of the “Office of Corpus Christi”; (3) in the form of a dialogue between a Franciscan and a Dominican, that St. Thomas was not a disciple of Alexander of Hales, and that the Secunda Secundae of the “Summa” was not borrowed from the latter. These, with a dissertation against Father Frassen, O.S.F., on the Vulgate, have been incorporated in his “Historia Ecclesiastica” (Venice edition, 1778). Father Alexander wrote and published in French: “Recueil de plusieurs pieces pour la defense de la morale et de la grace de J. C.” (Delft, 1698); “Apologie des Dominicains Missionaires de la Chine, ou reponse au livre intitule”, “Defense des nouveaux Chretiens” (Cologne, 1697); “Conformite des ceremonies Chinoises avec l’idolatrie grecque et romaine, pour servir de confirmation l’apologie des Dominicains Missionaires de la Chine” (Cologne, 1700); “Lettres d’un Docteur de l’ordre de S. Dominique sur les ceremonies de la Chine” (Cologne, 1700).


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