benefice (bĕnˈəfĭs) [key], 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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.