benefice, in canon law, a position in the church that has attached to it a source of income; also, more narrowly, that income itself. The occupant of a benefice receives its revenue (temporalities) for the performance of stipulated duties (spiritualities), e.g., the celebration of Mass. He receives the free use of such revenue but is expected to convert into good works any income in excess of his personal needs. Benefices are normally bestowed for life. Canon law forbids plurality of benefices, i.e., the holding of more than one benefice, but papal dispensations have made many exceptions to this rule. Benefices were originally in the form of land donations made to the church by wealthy laymen. Today the revenue of a benefice may come also from government salaries, investments, or the offerings of the faithful. Benefices are common in Europe but are practically unknown in the United States. The Church of England makes extensive use of the beneficiary system; the benefice in England is also called a living. The value of benefices led to many abuses (see simony) and frequent conflict between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the Middle Ages.
Originally a benefice was a gift of land (precaria) for life as a reward for services rendered. The word comes from the Latin noun beneficium, meaning "benefit". A concept used by the Roman Catholic Church, it was abandoned by Protestantism (except in the Church of England).

Before the Reformation

Under pre-Reformation Canon law it came to mean an income enjoyed — often linked to some land administered — by a priest in chief of an ecclesistical office, such as a parish, monastery, or a post of canon in a chapter. Each benefice had a number of "spiritualities", or spiritual duties, attached to it. For providing these spiritualities, a priest would receive "temporalities", or pay. From the medieval period onward, priests administered sacraments to their flock and usually provided other services as well. The pastorally served community was to provide for the priest as necessary, often in the form of a land-based tithe (often partially or wholly lost to a temporal lord); the elite provided patronage and made significant donations. Consequently, these two factors concentrated enormous wealth in the 'dead hand' of the Catholic church, so called because it endured beyond any individual's life and also avoided some or all taxes.


Over time, the benefice system was abused throughout Europe. As benefices came to priests due to feudal patronage and political considerations, priests occasionally held more than one benefice, called pluralism. This pluralism quite often resulted in absenteeism, where the priest would not take care of his benefice. Stigand, once Archbishop of Canterbury in England, was a pluralist, and William I of England was keen to get rid of him.

Pluralism was often seen as a good investment for a family that could afford to buy a position (simony) for a younger son or other protégé. The position would allow the family to curry favour in the Church and serve to guarantee a future for the appointee.

Other 'fat' benefices — even abbotships — were sometimes delegated to priests hired for a fraction of the benefice, while the family held the 'nominal' benefice. This practice encouraged the use of substitute priests of dubious quality: the lack of proper training until the invention of seminaries led to illiterate priests, a few even preaching heresy.

After the Reformation

The corruption called for ecclesiastical reform in the church in the 15th and 16th centuries. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, started as a significant leader in this drive for internal reorganization — ultimately starting the Protestant Reformation.

After the Reformation, the new churches generally adopted systems of ecclesiastical polity that did not entail benefices, with the exception of the Church of England. On the continent the French Revolution broke the back of the system by the Constitution civile du clergé, confiscating the vast capital of the church and paying for it by awarding the formerly dependent clergy a state salary. This system is still in force in several countries, including Belgium. At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church called for the abolition of benefices in that church altogether; it was not successful.

Church of England

The term benefice (or living) is used in the Church of England to describe a parish or group of parishes under a single stipendiary minister, but the term is much older and dates from the grant of benefices by bishops to clerks in holy orders as a reward for extraordinary services. The holder of a benefice is said to own the freehold of the post (the church and the parsonage house) but this freehold is now subject to many constraints. To meet European regulations on "atypical workers", the freehold is to be phased out in favour of new conditions of service called "common tenure" (a term that sounds ancient but is of recent invention).

See also



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