Privilege (Lat. privilegium, from privata lex, a private law), in general, is a special ordinance or regulation in virtue of which an individual or a class enjoys certain immunities or rights from or beyond the common provisions of the general law of the community. In ancient and medieval legislation, the law of privilege formed an important branch; and, in truth, the condition of the so-called "privileged classes" was in all respects different, socially, civilly, and even religiously, from that of the non-privileged.
In canon law, there were two privileges enjoyed by the clergy, which deserve especial notice, from the frequency of the historical reference to them — the "privilege of the canon" (privileyium canonis) and the "privilege of the forum" (privilegiumnfori). By the former, the person of the clergyman, of whatever degree, was protected from violence by the penalty of excommunication against the offender; by the latter — in England called "benefit of clergy" (q.v.) — the clergyman was exempted from the ordinary civil tribunals, and could only be tried in the ecclesiastical court. — Chambers, s.v. This privilege from the civil power is now generally abrogated, or at least modified. It comprehended the independent jurisdiction of the clergy (privilegium fori), according to which not only all litigious concerns among the clergy themselves, but all personal, and most of the real complaints of laymen against clerks, were brought before, and decided by, ecclesiastical courts; likewise. not only their official transgressions, as functionaries of the Church, but also their civil crimes, were tried and punished by clerical tribunals. To the same class of privileges belongs the benefit of competence, in consequence of which, in matters of debts and substation, the clerical person must be left the means of living according to his station. Finally, the clergy obtained at an early period a number of immunities. which were gradually increased. They were, in consideration of the spiritual pursuits to which they have to devote themselves, exempted from the administration of governmental or communal functions, from tutorships and guardianships, from military and other services to which all other citizens of the State are bound (ismunitras personalis). With these was connected the immunity from extraordinary taxes (imnunitas realis); from presentations for the building of roads, bridges, channels; from lodging soldiers; from surveyances in times of war (immunitas mixta). Many of these immunities were granted to the clergy by the emperors Theodosius (Cod. Theodos. 2, 3, 11, 14-17, 24, 36, De episc. eccl. et cler. 16:2) and Justinian (1, 1, 2, 6, 52, Cod. De episc. et cler. 1, 3) in the times of the Roman empire; afterwards by the Frankish kings (Cupp. Reg. From cc. lib. 7:c. 185, 290, 467); consolidated by the ecclesiastical legislation (c. 69, c. 12 qu. 2; c. 40, c. 16:qu. I; c. 4, 7, 10 De immun. eccl. 3, 49; Sextus, c. 1, 3, cod. 3, 23; Sextus, c. 4, De censibus, 3, 20: Clem. c. 3, cod. 3, 13, etc.), and urgently recommendled by the Council of Trent to the worldly rulers (Conc. Trid. sess. 25:c. 20, De ref.). In our times most of the civil legislations impose the same regular taxes on all citizens, without exception, and regardless of former immunities. But in many European states the clergy are unconditionally exempted from communal functions, guardianships, and personal prestations, and are also exempted from military service. — Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lexikon.