BENEFICIUM COMPETENTIĆ: The privilege by which a condemned debtor is allowed to retain so much of his income as is absolutely necessary to his maintenance. Such a privilege exists in many places, in the interest of the public service, for officials and also for clerics. For the latter the custom is usually referred to the decree of Gregory IX (1271-76) De solutionibus (iii, 23). This passage, however, only establishes the principle that an unbeneficed clerical debtor can not be forced to pay by spiritual penalties, and that the creditors are to be content with sufficient security for payment when the debtor's circumstances improve. The glosses, and common practice following them, base the privilege upon the decree, and statute law has confirmed it, restricting any levy upon the salary or other income of such a cleric so that a certain sum is left to him as congrua (sustentatio). This privilege can not be pleaded in the case of debts arising from unlawful transactions or of public taxes.
BENEFIT OF CLERGY: A privilege claimed by the medieval Church; as part of its general plea of immunity from secular interference. It allowed members of the clergy to have their trial for offenses with which they were charged, not before any secular tribunal, but in the bishop's court. In England this covered practically all cases of felony except treason against the king, and by the reign of Henry II it had given rise to great abusers. In many cases grossly criminal acts of clerics escaped unpunished, and other criminals eluded the penalty of their acts by declaring themselves clerics. The question was one of those on which the quarrel between the king and Becket reached its acute stage; and by the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164; see BECKET, THOMAS) Henry attempted to deal with it by decreeing that clerics accused of crime were to be first arraigned in the king's court, which might at its discretion send them to an ecclesiastical court. If convicted here and degraded (see DEGRADATION), the clerk was to lose his benefit of clergy and be amenable to lay justice. Edward III extended the privilege in 1330 to include all persons who could read (see CLERK); and it was not until the fifteenth century that any very definite regulation of this dangerous latitude was arrived at. Later statutes guarded against the evasion of their provisions by expressly declaring that their operation was "without benefit of clergy," and the privilege was finally abolished in 1827. There are a few early cases of its use in the American colonies, especially the Carolinas and Virginia; but an Act of Congress put an end to it here in 1790.
Calvin College. Last modified on 05/10/04. Contact the CCEL.