Zeger Bernhard van Espen
He completed his higher studies at Leuven (French: Louvain), became priest in 1673, and doctor of civil and canon law in 1675. He soon began to teach canon law at the University of Louvain where he was obliged to lecture only for six weeks during the summer vacation; the professor might explain one or other important chapter of the decretals, at his choice. He never accepted any other chair at the university, and he resigned even this position in order to devote himself entirely to study.
The Jansenist quarrels led to Van Espen's ruin. On being consulted by the Jansenists of Holland with regard to the ordination of the Jansenist Bishop of Utrecht, Cornelius Steenoven, he pronounced in favour of this ordination, which had been performed without the authorization of the Holy See. An attempt has been made to justify Van Espen's conduct in this matter, on the ground that he merely declared that episcopal ordination performed by a single bishop was valid. This was not the whole question, nor was it indeed the principal question, viz. to determine whether an episcopal ordination, performed without the pope's consent, was admissible.
His action in this matter and his Jansenist doctrines brought about his suspension a divinis by the Bishop of Mechlin. The latter summoned him to make a declaration of orthodox faith. At the order of the civil power, the University of Leuven condemned and deprived (1728) Van Espen of his university functions.
In the meantime he fled, and took refuge first at Maastricht, and afterwards at Amersfoort, where he found protection in the Jansenist community, and where he died. The Augustinian Bernardus Désirant (1656–1725), professor at the University of Leuven, is accused of having fabricated false documents in the controversy with Van Espen (the "Forgery of Louvain"). Désirant was condemned by the academical authorities and banished forever from his native country.
Van Espen was a lucid and clarifying expositor of the discipline of the ancient Church. His work Jus canonicum universum was a huge treatise, arguing that the Catholic Church was fundamentally conciliar. The author is accused, not without reason, of having borrowed considerably from the works of his predecessors, notably from Louis Thomassin.
He collected the most recent legislative decisions of the Church and discussed them with judgment. He had also the merit of showing with precision the special law of Belgium. Pope Benedict XIV recognized his authority in this matter.
On the other hand he was a strenuous defender of the Gallican theories, on the right of religious authority and of the civil power. It may be added, however, that he exalted and combated in turn all power, even the civil power. He exalted the power of the bishops in order to lessen that of the religious orders, and the rights of an extinct chapter in order to combat the powers of the Pope. He gained for himself unpleasant notoriety in the Jansenist conflicts, by denying the importance of the famous distinction between right and fact with regard to the doctrine of Cornelius Jansen; he declared that it was of little consequence to admit that Jansen had taught the propositions condemned by the Bull Unigenitus (1713) provided the doctrine itself was rejected.
The best edition of the works of Van Espen, all of which are on the Index, is that published in four volumes at Louvain, 1753. A fifth volume, "Supplementum ad varias collectiones operum", was published at Brussels in 1768, and contains numerous biographical details.
- DU PAC DE BELLEGARDE, Vi de Van Espen (Brussels, 1767);
- LAURENT, Van Espen (Paris, 1860);
- DE BAVAY, Van Espen, jurisconsulte et canoniste Belge in Belgique Judiciaire (Brussels, 1846), IV, 1463;
- VERHOEVEN, Van Espen in Revue Catholique (Louvain, 1846–47), IV, 497;
- DE RAM in BAKHUISEN, Acta Zegeri Bernardi Van Espen circa missionem Hollandicam (Mechlin, 1827).
- William Doyle, Jansenism (2000), p. 69.