What’s a Benefice? Eliminating Financial Corruption in the Church

Q: Can you please explain what exactly a benefice is, and how it works in the Church today?

…I recently endured a tirade from an anti-Catholic evangelical, who among a million other things was bashing the Church for its financial corruption.  He kept mentioning “benefices,” but I didn’t know what that term even meant, so I held my tongue.

Later I did some research online … I learned that a benefice is an ecclesiastical office with a salary.  But I don’t know why we Catholics never seem to hear this term today?  Is “benefice” synonymous with “office”?  Is the office of the pastor of a parish a benefice, for example?  I don’t understand why the evangelical was criticizing the idea that a clergy needs a salary to live on … [because] evangelical ministers must earn a salary too…. –Judith

A: Judith has stumbled upon a historical concept which was indeed grossly abused once upon a time—which is why nowadays it has practically ceased to exist.  Paradoxically, the Catholic-bashing evangelical whom Judith mentions wanted to “prove” that the Catholic Church has always been full of financial corruption … yet the example he cited is actually proof that the Church has, over the years, taken great steps to eliminate one source of that corruption.  Let’s take a look at the full, precise definition of a benefice, and at how it developed into a method for too many dishonest clerics to bleed church institutions (and the faithful!) dry.  Then we’ll see what the Church did to reform the abuse—and how, in the process, it developed a very different method of providing priests and bishops with financial support, which avoids the pitfalls of the benefice system.

If you take a look at the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on benefices, written way back in 1907, the term is defined like this:

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.

Put simply, when a cleric “obtained a benefice” in years gone by, that meant he had arranged to have a steady income in exchange for doing his job, which ordinarily—though not always—was ministerial in nature.  But the Encyclopedia rightly points out that people often misused the term, and so sometimes the term referred to the actual source of that income (more on the source in a moment).

So what was wrong with a cleric obtaining a benefice?  Strictly speaking, nothing!  We all know that priests and bishops can’t live on air and sunlight; they have normal material needs which have to be taken care of, as a matter of justice.  As canon 281.1 tells us, “since clerics dedicate themselves to ecclesiastical ministry, they deserve remuneration which is consistent with their condition.”  How are they to obtain the funds to pay for their material needs?  It is again only a matter of justice that the faithful, whose spiritual needs are taken care of by the clergy, should compensate them materially in some way!  That said, there are any number of different systems that could be implemented to do this.

Over the course of the past 2000 years the Church has tried several variations on the basic theme.  It was presumably a lot easier in the earliest days of Christianity, when the number of faithful—and of clergy—was relatively small.  We can see in the Acts of the Apostles that in the beginning, there was no organized, uniform system of fund-raising and distribution in place; rather, the faithful simply pooled their material goods and supported each other, including the clergy:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common…. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.  (Acts 4:32-35). 

But once the Church counted huge numbers of members, and covered vast swathes of the globe, this beautifully simple, spontaneous donation of goods by those Catholics who could afford it needed some sort of systemization.  To cite only one of countless examples, what was supposed to happen when a priest went alone into a non-Christian land, to attempt to convert the inhabitants?  Obviously he needed some kind of material support too, and he couldn’t assume he would get it from the (often suspicious and even hostile) locals who had never heard of the faith he preached.  And what was a poor Christian community to do, if they genuinely couldn’t raise sufficient funds to take care of the priest who worked tirelessly to ensure their spiritual wellbeing?  These and other questions arose in the course of church history, and the solutions needed to be worked out.

Along the way, one potential source of steady clerical income was definitively nixed by the Church: while a typical priest’s “job” is largely to celebrate Mass and administer sacraments to the faithful, he cannot support himself by charging the faithful a mandatory fee for these services.  True, as we saw in “Stipends and Sacraments,” it is permitted and not inappropriate to request/accept a stipend for performing certain sacramental functions, like celebrating a Mass (c. 945.1) or a sacrament like baptism or marriage (cf. c. 1264 n. 2); but church authorities are to take care that needy Catholics are not deprived of the sacraments, and are not prevented from having Masses celebrated for their intentions, because of their inability to give these stipends (c. 848 and c. 945.2).  In short, a priest is expected to see to the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful under his care, regardless of whether they can give him any money or not!

Theologically, therefore, it won’t do for a Catholic priest to be “marketing” Mass and the sacraments, in order to support himself—and at this stage in the history of the Church, most of us Catholics understand this intuitively.  No, there has to be another way to ensure that he has some kind of dependable income to cover his expenses … and this is how the concept of a benefice developed centuries ago in the Church.

In a nutshell, here’s how it worked: imagine that a bishop chooses Father John to be the pastor of St. Michael’s parish, and as payment for his ministry, the pastor of St. Michael’s receives all the annual income from a sheep farm in the nearby countryside.  Understandably, the amount will vary from year to year; but so long as it is sufficient to cover Father John’s material needs, the actual sum shouldn’t matter.  If it happens to be more—even a lot more—than Father John needs to live on, then he is a fortunate priest indeed, because he gets to keep all the money no matter what!

Under this system, which functioned in the Church worldwide for centuries, we would say that “Father John held the benefice of St. Michael’s parish.”  Dioceses—and Rome as well—established plenty of other benefices too: a priest could have one for teaching in the seminary, or for working as the Vicar General of the diocese (see “Can a Pope be Removed From Office?” and “Is Nepotism Still an Issue in the Church?” for a discussion of the office of Vicar General in other contexts).

In this imaginary but realistic example, there is no intrinsic corruption—but if you think for a minute about how the system worked on a practical level, problems with it will become clear.  For one thing, it should be immediately obvious that if each clerical office had a different source of income attached to it, there was bound to be a problem of inequity.  Perhaps the benefice of St. Anthony’s parish on the other side of town had a mill with a water-wheel, where farmers regularly brought grain to be ground into flour … and its profits were much lower that those of the sheep farm attached to the abovementioned St. Michael’s parish.  If both parish priests were working full days to minister to the faithful, then why should St. Michael’s be paying much better than St. Anthony’s?

Often this inequity would naturally foster resentment among the clergy—who are of course working for God, but nonetheless still have to deal with the effects of original sin like the rest of us—and it was only inevitable that many priests with lower-paying benefices wanted “promotions” to benefices that amounted to more money.  And this grasping for more income led, in turn, to the common practice of one cleric gaining multiple benefices!  Readers might reasonably object that a priest ministering to the faithful in one parish has no time to minister to the faithful of another; but note that the income received by a cleric from a benefice was not connected to his conscientious performance of his duties.  Rather, the income arrived in a cleric’s pocket simply because he held the office/job.  What happened fairly often was that a bishop or priest might obtain a second benefice … and then “hire” someone else, at a lower rate of income, to actually do the work.  In this way the benefice-holder made a profit, for basically doing no work at all.

Most of us today would be appalled at the notion that a greedy priest would seek to hold multiple offices, just to get more money; but to be fair, sometimes a cleric could make a halfway decent case for needing a higher income—maybe he was supporting his young orphaned siblings as well as himself, or his primary benefice simply didn’t bring in enough cash to cover even the most modest daily expenses.  The fact that there really were cases where a priest sought/obtained more than one benefice for an arguably legitimate reason muddied the waters.  But the overarching issue was the same for them all: the benefice system generally led clergy to tend to focus more on the amount of financial compensation each was getting, and less on the ministerial work they were doing for the good of souls.

Sensible and responsible officials in the Church became well aware of the abuses that were developing within the benefice system.  In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council made an important distinction between benefices which were connected to the cura animarum (the care of souls), and benefices which weren’t.  For example, a priest might hold the benefice of archivist or librarian at a pontifical university or a diocesan chancery—which by definition involved cataloguing books and documents, not hearing confessions and preparing parishioners for marriage.  Under the Lateran Council’s reform, it was lawful for a priest/bishop to have (say) a benefice like this, and a benefice which involved priestly ministry (like a parish, or a diocese if he was a bishop) … but he couldn’t hold the benefice of St. Martha’s parish as well as the parish of Our Lady of Good Counsel, since of course both involved the care of souls (see canon 29 of that council).

The same council decreed that if church officials selected “unworthy candidates” for offices involving the care of souls—something which could certainly happen if they gave lucrative benefices to their clerical friends or relatives—the unworthy candidates would be removed, and the church officials who had wrongly chosen them would themselves lose their own benefices as a penalty (canon 26).  And if any clergy were caught in sexual sins, or in drunkenness, they would lose their benefices as a punishment (canons 14 and 15, respectively), which presumably should have constituted motivation for sinful priests and bishops to amend their scandalous lives. Needless to say, these actions taken at the Fourth Lateran Council didn’t eliminate all the Church’s benefice-related problems, but they were definitely big steps in the right direction.

Unfortunately … when it comes to obtaining money, fallen human nature is always adept at finding or inventing clever workarounds and exemptions from rules.  If you’re familiar with European history, it should come as no surprise that in certain regions where the Church was at least as powerful as the State in bygone years, the creative manipulation of the benefice system reached an art form.  In the early years of the Renaissance, the de Medici were a super-elite banking family in Florence, and Lorenzo “the Magnificent” (1449-1492) took great pains to wheedle and cajole Pope Innocent VII for 27 different benefices for his son Giovanni—because apparently making the lad a Cardinal at the ripe old age of 14 wasn’t benefit enough!  The benefices included the title of Abbot of a monastery in France (which Giovanni received when he was eight years old), and the enormous Italian Abbey of Monte Cassino, pictured below, with all its extensive agricultural holdings.

You have to seriously ask yourself (1) how a little boy, who of course was not yet ordained a priest and was not a member of any monastic order, could “earn” the income attached to these prestigious offices; (2) how any one human being could conceivably perform the 27 different roles for which the benefices were paying him; and of course (3) why a member of arguably one of the wealthiest families on the planet at the time would “need” all this money, anyway!

It’s almost understandable that the youngster who grew up in such corrupt circumstances, benefice, sedevacantistand eventually became Pope Leo X (reigned 1513-1521), would become notorious for himself granting benefices to his friends and political allies, with no regard for their qualifications and with flagrant disregard for previously established church laws (see “Can You be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?” for more on the scandalous lifestyle of this particular Pope).  In fact, Pope Leo’s lavish expenditures were as legendary as they were revolting, prompting a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther to publicly decry the shameless avarice of the Catholic clergy, by nailing his objections to church doors in Wittenberg.  The rest, as we all know, is history.

When the dust of the protestant reformation began to settle, the Council of Trent (which took place 1545-1563) unsurprisingly tackled the identifiable abuses related to the benefice system.  The Council Fathers were blunt:

… [S]eeing that many, through the passion of ungodly covetousness deceiving themselves, not God, are not ashamed to elude, by various artifices, what has been so excellently ordained, and to hold several benefices at the same time; the holy Synod, desiring to restore the discipline required for the government of the church, doth by this present decree—which It orders to be observed in regard of all persons whatsoever, by whatsoever title distinguished, even though it be by the dignity of the Cardinalate—ordain, that, for the future, one ecclesiastical benefice only shall be conferred on one and the same person. (24th Session, Chapter XVII of the Decree on Reformation, emphasis added)

Trent also decreed that before a man could receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, he had to be already in possession of a benefice which was sufficient to support him (21st Session, Chapter II of the Decree on Reformation).  In this way, the endless angling for profitable (and multiple) benefices by greedy clerics would be obviated from the start.  On the surface, this may sound like a radically new approach to the question of the support of Catholic clergy; but in reality, Trent was simply returning to the centuries-old concept that men should only be ordained if/when there is an office (or other ministerial need) for them to fill.  In other words, a bishop wasn’t supposed to be ordaining clergy if there was no particular use for them.  And yes, this was something that in the Middle Ages/Renaissance era definitely happened—which is part of the reason why clergy were perennially scrambling to obtain benefices!

(Since nowadays the Church in most of the world is dealing with a chronic shortage of priests, it can be hard for us to imagine a bishop ordaining a new priest who has no task to fulfill, no role to play in the Church.  In the current code, we find this articulated in canon 1025.2, which states that a candidate for ordination must be considered by his bishop to be beneficial to the ministry of the Church.  In other words, a man may argue that he is being called by God to the priesthood—but if his bishop doesn’t need him, or feels that he is for some reason unfit, the man cannot insist that he be ordained.  We took a look at this issue in “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?”)

But the whole benefice system effectively received its death knell at the Second Vatican Council, with Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO), the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests:

As those dedicated to the service of God and the fulfillment of the office entrusted to them, priests deserve to receive an equitable remuneration….  Wherefore, insofar as an equitable remuneration of the priests would not be provided otherwise, the faithful themselves—that is, those in whose behalf the priest labors—are truly obliged to see to it that they can provide what help is necessary for the honorable and worthy life of the priests….  The remuneration received by each one, in accord with his office and the conditions of time and place, should be fundamentally the same for all in the same circumstances and befitting his station….  Furthermore, this remuneration should be such that it will permit priests each year to take a suitable and sufficient vacation, something which indeed the bishops should see that their priests are able to have.  [See “Clergy and Summer Vacation” for more on this last provision.]

Special importance ought to be given to the office fulfilled by sacred ministers. Therefore the so-called system of benefices should be relinquished or at least so reformed that the place of the benefits, or the right to revenue from the endowment attached to an office, would be held as secondary, and the first place in law would be given to the ecclesiastical office itself. From this it should be understood that whatever office is conferred in a stable manner is to be exercised for a spiritual purpose.  (PO 20, emphases added)

This is why as a rule, one no longer encounters situations where (let’s say) the pastor of St. Bernadette’s parish has a higher income than the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, with both parishes located in the same diocese.  What’s important is, as PO tells us, “the ecclesiastical office itself”—and not the income that is derived from it.

For the record, there are a couple of places in the Catholic world where benefices are still extant; at last check they included agricultural holdings in some parts of France.  These are centuries-old arrangements which the Church aims to phase out gradually.  This goal is reflected in the current canon 1272, which notes that the income derived from these few existing benefices is to be transferred to the dioceses, which then pay their priests directly—instead of the money from the benefices going right to the clergy.

So now Judith has her answer.  The benefice system used to be the way that Catholic clergy received their income, in exchange for their ministerial or other work; but when that system led to abuses and corruption, the Church sought ways to clean it up.  Over the centuries, fixing parts of the system seems to have solved parts of the problem, at least short-term; but finally in the 20th century the Church got rid of benefices altogether, replacing them with a more equitable means of compensating the clergy for their work.

There is no denying that, as the “anti-Catholic evangelical” ranted to Judith, the Church is riddled with far too much corruption, financial and otherwise.  But the payment of Catholic clergy—assuming that it’s done in accord with current law, of course—is specifically designed to avoid this.  The scandalous financial abuses that one reads about in the Church of centuries past, with regard to the benefice system, are not the scandalous financial abuses of today.

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