AskDefine | Define benefice

Dictionary Definition

benefice n : an endowed church office giving income to its holder [syn: ecclesiastical benefice] v : endow with a benefice

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A position (as that of a priest) in a church that has a source of income attached to it.



  1. benefit

Extensive Definition

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". Originally a concept in the Catholic Church, it was abandoned by Protestantism (excepting 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 carry 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 Catholic Church called for the abolition of benefices in that church altogether; it was not successful.

Church of England

The term benefice is commonly used in the Church of England to describe a group of parishes under a single stipendiary minister, but the term is much older and dates from the grant of benfices by bishops to clerks in holy orders as a reward for extraordinary services. The current use of the term often refers to the amalgamation of the stipends of multiple parishes to fund a single stipendiary minister, perhaps supported by lay clerks, curates or non-stipendiary ministers.



benefice in German: Benefizium
benefice in French: Bénéfice (Moyen Âge)
benefice in Italian: Beneficium
benefice in Lithuanian: Beneficija
benefice in Japanese: 聖職禄
benefice in Polish: Beneficjum
benefice in Portuguese: Beneficium
benefice in Russian: Бенефиций
benefice in Slovenian: Beneficij
benefice in Swedish: Beneficium
benefice in Ukrainian: Бенефіція
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