I. Definition. — Benefice is defined by the canonists to be "Jus perpetuum percipiendi fructus ex bonis ecclesiasticis, clerico competens propter officium aliquod spirituale." This term was, in its origin, applied to the lands which were given by the Romans to deserving soldiers out of the territories acquired by conquest. These soldiers were called milites beneficiarii, and the lands so given beneficium. Hence the term came in time to be applied to the possessions of the Church, when certain portions were appropriated to individuals to enjoy during their life as a recompense for their services. The word is now applied to all preferments in the Church of England except bishoprics, though more commonly used to signify such churches as are endowed with a revenue for the performance of divine service; it is also used for the revenue itself. The incumbents are said to enjoy the revenue of a living ex mero beneficio (from the pure kindness) of the patron.
II. In the Roman Church benefices are divided by the canon law
(1.) into secular and regular. "Secular" benefices are those held by secular clerks, e.g. bishoprics, and the dignities in cathedral chapters, viz. the offices of dean, archdeacon, chancellor, precentor, canon, prebend, etc.; also perpetual vicarages, simple cures, chapels, etc. All benefices are held to be secular in the absence of proof or long possession to the contrary, and secular benefices may be held by regulars elevated to the episcopate. "Regular" benefices are those which are conferred only on monks. Such are titular abbeys, all claustral offices enjoying an appropriated revenue, e.g. those of titular conventual prior, almoner, hospitaller, sacristan, cellarer, etc.
(2.) Into double (duplicia) and simple (simplicia). "Double" benefices are those to which is annexed the cure of souls; or any pre-eminence or administration of the property of the Church, e.g. pope, cardinal, dean, etc. "Simple" benefices are such as only carry the obligation to say the breviary or celebrate masses, such as secular priories, chapelries, etc.
(3.) Into benefices titular (titularia) and benefices in commendam. The former are those which are given in perpetuity; the latter for a time only, until a clerk, capable of discharging the duties, can be found. There area however, perpetual commendams, i.e. where the temporal revenues of a regular benefice are given to a secular clerk to hold perpetually.
There are six lawful ways of obtaining a benefice, viz.:
1. By the presentation of the patron, and subsequent institution; 2. by election, and the subsequent confirmation of the person elected; 3. by postulation, and the subsequent confirmation of the person postulated; 4. by free and voluntary collation; 5. by exchange; 6. by resignation in favorem, followed by collation. — Landon, Eccl. Dict. 2, 164
III. In the Church of England parochial benefices with cure are defined by the canon law to be a distinct portion of ecclesiastical rights, set apart from any temporal interest, and joined to the spiritual function, and to these no jurisdiction is annexed; but it is otherwise as to archdeacons and deans, for they have a jurisdiction, because they formerly took the confession of the chapter, and visited them. It is essential to a parochial benefice that it be bestowed freely (reserving nothing to the patron), as a provision for the clerk, who is only a usufructuary, and has no inheritance in it; that it have something of spirituality annexed to it, for where it is given to a layman it is not properly a benefice; that in its own nature it be perpetual — that is, forever annexed to the church; and all manner of contracts concerning it are void.