Cardinal Keith O'Brien: 'Allow priests to marry'

media captionBritain's most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, says priests should be allowed to choose whether or not to marry

Britain's most senior Roman Catholic has said he believes priests should be able to marry if they wish to do so.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien said it was clear many priests struggled to cope with celibacy, and should be able to marry and have children.

The cardinal will be part of the conclave that chooses the next Pope.

He spoke of his surprise at the resignation of Benedict XVI, and said he was open to the new Pope coming from outside of Europe.

In an interview with BBC Scotland's Glenn Campbell, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, said some issues - for example abortion and euthanasia - were "basic dogmatic beliefs" of "divine origin" which the Church could never accept.

But Cardinal O'Brien, who is the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, said it would be within the scope of the new Pope to consider whether the Roman Catholic Church should change its stance on other issues, which were not of divine origin.

He explained: "For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry - Jesus didn't say that.

"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 thought about whether he wanted to get married as he had been "too busy" with his duties.

But he added: "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."

Cardinal O'Brien will have a say in who succeeds Benedict XVI after he stands down on 28 February.

He said he believed it might be time for a younger pontiff from part of the developing world, where the Catholic faith is thriving.

Younger successor

"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", he added.

"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."

Benedict XVI was aged 78 when he was elected in 2005, making him one of the oldest new Popes in history.

And Cardinal O'Brien said a younger successor who was 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".

But he said he had not yet decided who should be elected as Pope during the conclave, which is expected to be held next month.

Cardinal O'Brien, 74, stood down from some frontline duties in the Catholic Church in Scotland last year due to his age.

He has been an outspoken opponent of Scottish government plans to legalise same-sex marriage and was controversially named "bigot of the year" by a gay rights charity last November.

Stonewall said he was given the title because he went "well beyond what any normal person would call a decent level of public discourse" in the debate.

The Catholic Church criticised the charity's award, saying it revealed "the depth of their intolerance" and a willingness to demean people who do not share their views.