Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's most senior Catholic figure, points to ecclesiastical celibacy as having no 'divine origin'

Britain's most senior Catholic has suggested Catholic priests should be able to marry and have children, saying the demand for celibacy was not of "divine origin".

In one of the most significant breaks with Catholic orthodoxy, Cardinal Keith O'Brien said many priests found it "very difficult to cope" with the celibate life and suggested lifting that ban could soon happen in the wider church.

The cardinal suggested that the next pope could review the marriage ban for priests. Marriage is allowed in some cases within the church already. The English Catholic church has accepted married former Anglican priests, under a policy introduced in 2011 by the present pope, Benedict XVI.

O'Brien, who has been the focus of bitter controversy over his staunch opposition to gay marriage and gay adoption, will be the only Catholic from the UK involved in the conclave in the Vatican next month to choose Benedict's successor.

That vote will be one of his final official duties. Now semi-retired, the cardinal is due to step down shortly as archbishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh, and as the head of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland.

In an interview with the BBC, he said there were some elements of Catholic teaching which were "basic dogmatic belief" – such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia. But the proscription against priest's marrying was not one of them.

"For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry – Jesus didn't say that," O'Brien said. "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."

Saying he had never considered marriage, as he was "too busy" with his duties, the cardinal said: "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.

"I would be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should get married.

"It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own."

Senior Scottish Catholics, including a former archbishop, have privately floated allowing priests to marry to cope with the severe shortage of young men entering the priesthood. Some parishes in the Scottish Highlands have to share priests because too few are available.

O'Brien said he could "hardly believe it" when he heard Pope Benedict had announced his resignation. The cardinal said he would welcome a new, young pope from outside Europe for the first time.

"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," he said.

"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." © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image: Catholic priest via Shutterstock]