Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

( Latin Beneficium , a benefit)

Popularly the term benefice is often understood to denote either certain property destined for the support of ministers of religion, or a spiritual office or function, such as the care of souls, but in the strict sense it signifies a right, i.e. the right given permanently by the Church to a cleric to receive ecclesiastical revenues on account of the performance of some spiritual service. Four characteristics are essential to every benefice:

  • the right to revenue from church property, the beneficed cleric being the usufructuary and not the proprietor of the source of his support;
  • a twofold perpetuity, objective and subjective, inasmuch as the source of income must be permanently established and at the same time the appointment to the benefice must be for life, and not subject to revocation, save for the causes and in the cases specified by law ;
  • a formal decree of ecclesiastical authority giving to certain funds or property the character or title of a benefice;
  • an annexed office or spiritual function of some kind, such as the care of souls, the exercise of jurisdiction, the celebration of Mass or the recitation of time Divine Office .

This last mentioned element is fundamental, since a benefice exists only for the sake of securing the performance of duties connected with the worship of God, and is based on the Scriptural teaching that they who serve the altar should live by the altar. In fact, as Innocent III declares, the sole purpose of the foundation of benefices was to enable the church to have at her command clerics who might devote themselves freely to works of religion.

HISTORY

The need which benefices are intended to meet was in the earlier centuries of the life of the Church satisfied in other ways. From the beginning, the clergy was supported by the liberality of the faithful, but originally all offerings were transmitted to the bishop, who took charge of their administration and distribution. Usually the mass of donations was divided into four portions, of which one went to the support of the bishop, another to the maintenance of the clergy, a third to the repair and construction of churches, and a fourth to the relief of the needy and afflicted. Under this system even those clerics who ministered in rural parishes were obliged to send the oblations received in their churches to the bishop, to swell the common fund and to be submitted to the ordinary rule of allotment. The inconvenience attending this method, especially because the offerings were frequently in kind, increased with the growth of the Church, particularly with the multiplication of country parishes. Moreover the Church came to possess considerable real property. Hence early in the sixth century we find in some places the practice of allowing some of the clergy to retain for themselves and for their churches the gifts which they had received or even the income from property which the Church had acquired. The latter form of grant, in connexion with lands or permanent endowments, was known as precaria , a name which indicates its unstable tenure; on the death of the possessor the source of his revenue reverted to the common fund of church property , and could not serve for the support of a cleric unless devoted anew to this purpose by a formal act of ecclesiastical authority. Though these precariœ were in the beginning contrary to the canons, circumstances justified their increasing employment, and they paved the way for the recognition of the modern benefice.

All that was needed to transform the precariœ into benefices, was to do away with the need of a new episcopal decree assigning the income from certain lands or other property to the support of a priest on the occurrence of a vacancy, and to recognize in the source of income a perpetual foundation for this specific purpose. When this was done and the incumbent was given permanency in office, the modern benefice came into being. It was of gradual growth, its beginning dating from the sixth century and its universal adoption being delayed until the eleventh century. Since the usufruct allowed to clerics resembled the grants of land which sovereigns were accustomed to make to subjects who had distinguished themselves by military or political service, and which the Church was at times compelled to concede to powerful lay lords in order to secure necessary protection in troubled times, it was natural that the term benefice, which had been applied to these grants, should be employed to denote the similar practice in regard to ecclesiastics. Wherever the common law of the Church holds sway the establishment of benefices is the rule. In more than one country a system developed by centuries of piety has fallen before decrees of secularization, but if the usurping government makes a pretence of compensation by stipends to the clergy, such stipends are regarded by the Church as beneficiary revenue, and those who receive them retain the status of beneficed clerics. In the United States benefices are almost unknown. A solitary example in New Orleans figured as a notable exception in the decree of the Second Plenary Council. A few parochial benefices are found in the province of San Francisco , and there is good ground for the opinion which sees in permanent rectorships all the requisites of a benefice; but these instances, with the episcopates, are in marked contrast with the general organization of the Church in the United States. In England, also, benefices are the exception, but in Canada they are more common (Gignac, Compend. Jur. Eccl., Quebec, 1906). The beneficiary system plays an important part in the discipline of the evangelical churches on the continent of Europe, and of the State church of England. In 1900, out of 22,800 clergymen at work in the Anglican Church, 13,872 were beneficed. (For benefices or "livings" in the Anglican Church see Phillimore, "Ecclesiastical Law"; Idem, "Book of Church Law", London, 1899, 227; ibid. the Benefices Act of 1898. For the Evangelical Churches see Hinschius, "Kirchenrecht", Berlin, 1869 sq.; Friedberg, "Lehrbuch des Kirchenrechts", 4th ed., 1895; Real Encyk. f. Prot. Theol. und Kirche, 3d ed., 1897, II, 596.)

DIVISION

Benefices are divided into simple and double; major and minor ; elective, presentative, and collative; residential and non-residential; perpetual and manual; secular and regular. Simple benefices are those which involve only the duty of reciting the Divine Office or of celebrating Mass. Double benefices imply the care of souls or jurisdiction in the external forum or administrative functions, and, if they be episcopal or supra-episcopal in rank, are styled major benefices. A benefice is elective when the appointing authority may collate only after some electoral body has named the future incumbent; presentative when such nomination belongs to a patron; collative when the bishop or other superior appoints independently of any election or presentation. The distinction between residential and non-residential benefices is based upon the fact that in some cases the canons or articles of foundation impose the obligation of residence in the locality of the benefice while in other cases no such obligation is annexed. Manual benefices are not benefices in the strict sense, since their distinctive note is that appointments to them are revocable at the will of the collating authority. A legal presumption exists that all benefices are secular, but those which exist in churches or houses of religious orders or which by custom or by the will of the founder have been appropriated to religious are known as regular benefices. This last distinction has at times a special importance because of the rule requiring that secular benefices be conferred only on secular clerics, regular benefices only on regulars.

CREATION

Benefices can be created only by ecclesiastical authority, since the right to revenue which they suppose is always necessarily connected with some spiritual function, and is therefore reckoned among the jura spiritualia controlled by the Church. The competent authority may be the pope or a bishop or one possessing quasi-episcopal authority, it being always understood that the pope has exclusive control of all major benefices. A benefice must be erected in a church or at an altar, under the title of some saint or mystery, and with the annexed obligation of rendering some spiritual service. Since the idea of compensation is always implied, a sufficient endowment must in every case be guaranteed, the amount varying with the character of the benefice, the locality of the foundation, and the nature of the services which are to be rendered. In some countries, as in Austria, the consent of the civil authorities is a necessary preliminary to the creation of a benefice.

MODIFICATION

A benefice once erected is understood to be perpetual, but the law must and does provide for circumstances which may require an alteration of the status of a benefice by union or division, or even its entire suppression or extinction. Sometimes, owing to changed conditions, especially to a diminution of revenue, it becomes necessary to unite two or more benefices. This union may be effected in two ways, either so that an entirely new individual entity is brought into being, or so that the original titles remain, but are conferred on one cleric instead of several. In this latter case a distinction has to be made between a union in which both benefices retain their legal autonomy and a union in which one benefice is made legally dependent on the other. The pope alone can unite major benefices; minor benefices are subject in this respect to episcopal authority, with very few exceptions. A bishop is not allowed to proceed to the union of benefices unless such action be justified by reasons of necessity or of advantage, and unless a hearing be first granted to all interested persons. The patron, if there be one, and the cathedral chapter are the only parties whose consent, as distinguished from mere opinion, is required. The division of benefices, which is most frequently verified in connexion with parishes, is authorized when the incumbent is unable on account of increasing obligations to meet the requirements of his office, even with the help of such auxiliaries as the law allows. The formalities are generally the same as for a union. The term "dismembration" is frequently employed as a synonym for division, but strictly speaking it denotes an act by which a part of the goods or revenues of one benefice is given perpetually to another benefice or to some other ecclesiastical entity. In this case no new benefice is set up, and the act in question is in reality simply an alienation of church property , and is therefore governed by the rules applicable to alienation. Dismembration is also used at times to signify the separation of a certain territory with its inhabitants from one parish and its incorporation in another, which may be effected for sufficient reason. The extinction of benefices occurs when both the benefice and the church to which it is attached are utterly destroyed or cease completely to have any connexion with Catholic worship, as happened in the past when certain countries were overrun by infidels or heretics, and in more recent times on the occasion of acts of usurpation by the civil power. Suppression differs from extinction in that it simply terminates the existence of a benefice, leaving intact the church and any other benefices which may be connected with it. Suppression involves a diminution of religious service, and is consequently regarded as odious in law. Nevertheless a bishop may for good reasons and with the consent of his chapter proceed to suppression, and at times such action is rendered necessary by a considerable depreciation in the value of the beneficiary property or by the departure of the population to whose spiritual needs the benefice was intended to minister. Suppression is not infrequently requested by patrons. In such cases the practice is not to consent to absolute suppression, at least of the religious service depending on the benefice, but simply to the exoneration of the patron and his renunciation of the jus patronatus .

COLLATION

The collation or granting of benefices may be ordinary or extraordinary, free or necessary. The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary collation is based upon the fact that while, ordinarily major benefices are disposed of by the pope and minor benefices by bishops, it may occasionally happen that this rule suffers an exception in so far as it relates to bishops, either because of a special provision of the law in favour of the pope or of some other authority, or because, on the failure of the bishop to act, the right to appoint devolves on his superior. These exceptions are known as extraordinary collations. From the eleventh century, extraordinary collations by the pope became more and more common, usually taking the form of mandata de providendo, literœ expectativœ , and reservations. The mandata de providendo were intended to give to the cleric named therein a right to a benefice already vacant in the diocese of the bishop to whom the mandate was directed. Literœ expectativœ were similar papal interventions in regard to diocesan benefices, but affected benefices not yet vacant, the recipient of the letter being given a claim on a benefice as soon as it should be at the disposal of the bishop. These two methods of extraordinary collation were not productive of happy results; they proved to be prejudicial to episcopal authority; they were taken advantage of by unworthy aspirants for ecclesiastical offices; and at times they were fraudulently obtained and offered for sale. Hence their reprobation by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, cap. xix De ref). This animadversion of Trent was not, it is needless to say, a limitation of any papal prerogative; its sole purpose being to forestall possible abuses on time part of petitioners for favours from the Holy See. Reservations are still in operation, and consist in this, that the pope reserves to himself in specified cases the collation of certain diocesan benefices. After serving for centuries as a cause of much controversy, they were finally regulated by laws defining accurately the instances in which collation was to be reserved to the pope. One of the most important reservations which may serve as an example is contained in the ninth rule of the Apostolic Chancery (see CHANCERY, APOSTOLIC), which provides that those diocesan benefices which fall vacant during eight months of the year are to be at the disposal of the pope, but that bishops who observe the law of residence may freely dispose of all benefices vacated during the six alternate months beginning with February. To-day reservations are in effect to some extent throughout the Church ; for example, they affect the first dignities in chapters in the Province of Quebec and canonries in England ; but Italy is the only country in which they are in full operation. Apart from cases provided for in reservations, the pope rarely, if ever, exercises his right of extraordinary collation. A collation, whether made by the pope or by a bishop, is said to be free when it is not conditioned by any act of an elector or of a patron; necessary when it follows election or nomination by competent persons or presentation by patrons. In many countries, concordats have secured to the representatives of civil authority an important part in appointments to benefices. Thus in Bavaria the king nominates to all archiepiscopal and episcopal sees ; and a similar right has been granted to the Emperor of Austria and to the King of Portugal ; in Hanover the chapter, before proceeding to the election of a bishop, must allow the Government to cancel the names of those candidates whom it judges unacceptable. Secular intervention in the collation of minor benefices varies from the royal nomination of the King of Portugal to the governmental exequatur required by Italian law. The interests of religion are safeguarded by the canonical requirement that in every case the candidate must be confirmed by ecclesiastical authority before he can lawfully begin his incumbency. (For abuses in the collation of benefices, see PATRONAGE, COMMENDATORY ABBOTS, INVESTITURES.)

CONDITION OF COLLATION

In order that benefices may the more effectually fulfill the purposes for which they were instituted, various laws have been enacted governing the act of collation. Whether the collation be free or necessary it must always be gratuitous, to avoid simony ; free, that is without coaction; unconditional; public, so that it may be readily proved ; and granted within six months from the date of vacancy. Moreover no benefice can be conferred before it is vacant, nor can seculars receive the benefices of regulars, nor regulars those which are secular in character. Plurality of benefices also is forbidden. This last regulation was introduced very early in the history of benefices to assure the faithful execution of the trust attached to ecclesiastical foundations , as well as to guard against the evils which follow luxury; but in the course of time its effectiveness was considerably diminished by a distinction drawn between compatible and incompatible benefices. It was claimed that a benefice which does not require residence is perfectly compatible with one which does, and also that several simple benefices might very properly be held at the same time. This view held sway down to the time of the Council of Trent, which ordained that the possession of more than one benefice is lawful only when the first benefice obtained does not suffice for the support of the incumbent, and that in no case should both be residential. The Holy See alone can dispense from the observance of this law. The act of collation is further conditioned by canons requiring certain qualities in the appointee:

(a) The clerical state and celibacy

Tonsure is necessary for all benefices, and higher orders must be received by aspirants to important charges; thus cardinals are obliged to receive within the year the order corresponding to their rank in the sacred college ; archbishops and bishops must have been subdeacons for at least six months; parish priests must receive the priesthood within a year.

(b) Age

Before the Council of Trent a simple benefice could lawfully be conferred on a cleric as early as his seventh year, but since that council the recipient of a simple benefice must be in his fourteenth year, and for double benefices the age of twenty-four years completed is always required. A greater maturity is demanded for certain offices, e.g. thirty years completed for the episcopate, and forty years for the post of canon penitentiary.

(c) Character

The appointee must be of legitimate birth and of good reputation, and free from censure and irregularity.

(d) Relative worthiness

In the case of a choice between several candidates for a bishopric or for a parish, the collator must appoint the most worthy, i.e. the one who possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for a successful discharge of the duties connected with the benefice in question. The same rule applies to prelacies with quasiepiscopal jurisdiction, to the canon theologian and to the canon penitentiary. As to other benefices authorities differ, the preferable opinion maintaining that in all cases the most worthy is to be chosen.

(e) Science

According to a law of Trent (Sess. VII, c. xiii, De ref.) no one can be collated to a benefice unless his fitness has been demonstrated in an examination conducted by the ordinary. In the case of parochial benefices, this examination must take the form of a concursus. (See CONCURSUS.) For some appointments the possession of a degree in theology or in canon law is demanded, as evidence of requisite learning; a bishop must be a doctor or a licentiate in canon law or in theology, or have the public testimony of a university as to his fitness to teach others; an archdeacon also must be a doctor or a licentiate in canon law or in theology ; and similar qualifications are demanded for other offices. The Holy See , is, at the present time, insisting that the law concerning degrees be faithfully observed.

(f) Extraordinary requirements

These may be imposed by the articles of foundation or by secular law. Founders of benefices are given a great deal of liberty in attaching conditions to the act of collation, provided that these conditions be approved by ecclesiastical authority. In consequence, it happens at times that only members of a certain family or citizens of some town or city are eligible, or even, in some few instances, persons of noble birth. More onerous, and not always acceptable to the church, is the interference of civil authorities in the matter of collation. In many places only a person declared acceptable to the Government, or a citizen, or a native, or one who swears fidelity to the Government at the time of appointment, or who receives the royal exequatur, can hope to be collated. In Portugal and in Bavaria, the permission of the Government is necessary for ordination, and without this permission, which is given after an examination by secular authorities, a cleric is incapacitated for benefices in these two kingdoms. The Bavarian law also contains the curious provision that no subject is to enter the German College at Rome so long as it is conducted by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, or by any similar order, and that all who contravene this ordinance are to be considered as personœ non gratœ to the Government and excluded from all benefices and posts at its disposal.

OBLIGATIONS

All beneficed clerics are bound to make a profession of faith within two months from the date of taking possession, to perform faithfully the duties pertaining to their charge, to recite the canonical hours , and if the benefice held be double, to reside in the place in which their benefice is located. Violation of the law of residence is punished by loss of revenues during the time of absence, and if persisted in, by privation.

VACANCY

The tenure of the incumbent of a benefice is perpetual, in the sense that it can be terminated only by death or for causes specified in the law. It is provided in the law that in the event of certain acts vacancy shall occur ipso facto; as when the incumbent marries or attempts marriage, when he takes solemn vows in a religious order, when he violates the canon forbidding plurality, when he fails to receive within the prescribed time the necessary ordination, when he obtains episcopal consecration, when he is guilty of any crime to which penalty of deprivation is expressly attached. In other cases deprivation follows a judicial process, instituted in virtue of laws authorizing the bishop to punish certain offences in this manner. Moreover a cleric has the right to resign his benefice provided the resignation be offered freely and for just reasons, and be accepted by a competent superior, and he may also, with certain conditions, exchange benefices with another incumbent.

REVENUES

The holder of a benefice is not the owner of the foundation from which he derives his support; he occupies in reference to it the position of a tutor or guardian who must defend its interests. His chief duty is to maintain it as a perpetual means of support for ministers of religion. Its fruits or revenues, however, belong to him, but with the obligation of devoting to pious causes, and especially to the relief of the poor, all that is not needed for his own support. Formerly, this superfluous revenue could not be disposed of by will, but a universal custom has long since authorized such testamentary disposal, provided it be made in favour of pious causes or of the poor. In fact, in most places on account of the difficulty of distinguishing a cleric's patrimonial property from his beneficiary revenue, the right is recognized to dispose freely by will of all property. (See JUS SPOLII.)


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Acts 3:11-26
11 Everyone came running towards them in great ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 8:2, 5, 6-7, 8-9
2 even through the mouths of children, or of babes in ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 24:35-48
35 Then they told their story of what had happened on ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for April 24th, 2014 Image

St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen
April 24: Franciscan Capuchin martyr. He was born Mark Rey is Sigmaringen, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter