Zeger Bernhard Van Espen
Belgian canonist, b. at Louvain, July 9, 1646; d. at Amersfoort, Netherlands, Oct. 2, 1728
Espen, ZEGER BERNHARD VAN, also called ESPENIUS, a Belgian canonist, b. at Louvain, July 9, 1646; d. at Amersfoort, Netherlands, October 2, 1728. He completed his higher studies at 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. He was consulted by all classes on account of his profound learning in canon law, and his famous work, “Jus canonicum universum”, although it raised numerous just criticisms, still remains remarkable. The author is accused, not without reason, of having borrowed considerably from the works of his predecessors, notably from Thomassin, yet it must be recognized that Van Espen possessed the art of setting forth in a lucid and intelligible way the discipline of the ancient Church; he also cast light upon questions which up to his time had been very obscure. His clear and concise style gives to his work a value which the labors of his predecessors do not possess. He collected the most recent legislative decisions of the Church and discussed them with judgment, except where party spirit blinded him. He had also the incontestable merit of showing with precision the special law of Belgium. Benedict XIV recognized his authority in this matter. On the other hand he was a strenuous defender of the Gallican theories. He misconstrued the right of religious authority and exaggerated beyond measure the right 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 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 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 favor of this ordination, which had been performed without the authorization of the Holy See. An unsuccessful 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 Louvain 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 Desirant, professor at the University of Louvain, is accused of having fabricated false documents in the controversy with Van Espen. This struggle is known as the “Forgery of Louvain”. Desirant was condemned by the academical authorities and banished forever from his native country. 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.
A. VAN HOVE