THE most senior Roman Catholic in Britain has said he believes priests should be able to marry if they wish to do so.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who will help elect the next Pope, said it was clear many priests struggled to cope with celibacy, and should be free to marry and have children if they so desire.
The call for an end to celibacy in the priesthood represents his most vocal stance on the issue to date and has already caused upset among conservative Catholics.
The editor of Catholic Truth, a traditonalist newsletter, branded Cardinal O’Brien a “liar” and a “hypocrite of the highest order.”
While the cardinal said he never wanted to get married due to the demands of his role, he pointed out that “Jesus didn’t say” that priests could not marry, explaining that he would welcome the freedom for others in the priesthood to wed and raise a family.
Catholic scholar Michael Walsh said there was “absolutely no chance” of the celibacy rule being changed overnight in the Church following remarks by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who said many priests struggle to cope with celibacy and should be able to marry and have a family.
“It is a most extraordinary thing for him to say because he (Cardinal O’Brien) is normally conservative. I think it is something that people might well welcome,” Mr Walsh, an expert on the history of the Vatican, said.
“I have been asked if he has said this because he believes that it will cut down on child abuse. Statistically, that is not likely. Married men are just as likely to commit child abuse as celibate men, it is not really the issue.
“But I think he may feel that the clerical culture which has created the possibility for people to hide their abusive behaviour would be ameliorated by having married clergy, certainly.”
In an interview, the cardinal, who is due to fly to Rome next week to help choose the next pope, also said he was taken aback at the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who became the first pontiff to relinquish the papacy in six centuries.
He said the election of a new pope should allow the church to alter its stance in issues such as celibacy of the clergy, although he emphasised that areas like euthanasia and abortion covered “basic dogmatic beliefs” of “divine origin.”
Discussing the issue of marriage, he said: “I would like others to have the choice because in my time there was no choice and you didn’t really consider it too much, it was part of being a priest. When I was a young boy, the priest didn’t get married and that was it, and when you were a student for the priesthood, it was part of the package as it were that you were celibate.
“You didn’t get married and you didn’t really consider it all that much. You just took your vows of celibacy as naturally as somebody makes their vows of marriage.”
He added: “I would be very happy if others [priests] had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should be married. It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to keep with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood, and felt the need for a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married, and raise a family of their own.”
The rule of celibacy is not a doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, and could be changed by the next Pope. Already, there are some married priests in the church, such as those who have converted from Anglicism, who are not bound by the rules of celibacy.
In the interview with BBC Scotland’s Glenn Campbell, he pointed out that the church’s view on the celibacy of the clergy could well change. “For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry - Jesus didn’t say that,” he explained. “There was a time when priests got married, and of course we know at the present time in some branches of the church - in some branches of the Catholic church - priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine of origin and it could get discussed again.”
Cardinal O’Brien said he had never personally considered getting married as he had been “too busy” with his duties, but he reiterated his belief that the freedom to choose should be given to those in the priesthood.
Patricia McKeever, editor of the Catholic Truth newsletter, reacted angrily to the cardinal’s comments last night.
She said: “He’s a liar, and it’s a shocking thing for him to say. It’s a disgrace that this is all happening to make us even more concerned before the conclave. Do you think he’d be saying this if he had a chance of being elected pope?
“Traditional Catholics will be appalled. He’s giving the impression of being what the newspaper columnists call hardline, but he’s anything but … he’s a hypocrite of the highest order.”
Composer James MacMillan, one of Scotland’s most prominent Catholics, said he expected the debate over celibacy to “develop” in the future, but emphasised that the “core commitment to celibacy will always be there.”
He said: “Celibacy is a mark of church discipline rather than doctrine, and we already have a range of different priests in the church who are married. I think it’s an acknowledgement that there is that diverse way of dealing with the issue already, and it’s one of these things that might develop for those who wish it in the future.
He added: “We’ve been talking about it for a while one way or another. I think it would be a mistake if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as it were, because there is a great value in celibacy in church tradition. It’d be good if there was some development in the fringes, but the core commitment to celibacy will always be there, I think, regardless of the accommodations made one way or another in certain quarters.”
It is not the first time Cardinal O’Brien, 74, has spoken of his view that the church would one day accept married priests. In 2005, he told the Catholic Times: “Having seen something of the apostolate of married deacons, I can foresee the day when there will be married priests.”
Despite his recent hardline stance over issues such as same-sex marriage, he acquired a reputation as a liberal Catholic prior to becoming a cardinal. In 2002, he said he said he would have “no problems with celibacy withering away,” adding: “There is no great theological argument against celibacy ending, nor any theological problem with it ending at all.
“The loss of celibacy would give great liberty to priests to exercise their God-given gift of love and sex rather than feeling they must be celibate all their lives. It would not cause me any great worry if it was to go.”
A day later he issued a joint statement with Mario Conti, the then archbishop of Glasgow, in which the pair said: “While no one would suggest clerical celibacy is an unchangeable discipline, we believe it has an enormous value.”
The cardinal, a vehement critic of the Scottish Government over same-sex marriage legislation, is the only man in Britain who will have a say as to who succeeds Pope Benedict, whose resignation will take effect on 28 February.
On 17 March, he will be 75, the statutory retirement age for Catholic Bishops. However, he remains a Cardinal Elector which will enable him cast his vote in Rome
In the interview, the cardinal said he believed it might be time for a younger pontiff from part of the developing world, where the Catholic faith is thriving.
He said: “Well I would be open to a pope from anywhere if I thought it was the right man, whether it was Europe or Asia or Africa or wherever.
“It is something which the cardinals have to think about seriously, having had popes from Europe for such a long time now - hundreds of years - whether it isn’t time to think of the developing world as being a source of excellent men.
“And of course we do have excellent cardinals from other parts of the world as well - highly intelligent, well-trained, deeply spiritual men from other parts of the world.”
The Irish-born cardinal said the prospect of a younger successor to Pope Benedict, someone who is able to serve for a longer period of time, may be able to “get more things done, to steady us up a wee bit and to give us something of the courage of the earlier apostles again.”