A call for priests to be allowed to wed by the UK’s most senior Roman Catholic will “raise some eyebrows” in the Vatican in the run-up to the election of the next Pope.
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.
Cardinal O’Brien, 74, who has been known until now for his outspoken defence of orthodox Catholic views on issues such as gay marriage, was speaking ahead of a trip to Rome where he will be the only British Roman Catholic cleric able to vote in the upcoming conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI following his decision to resign.
“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.”
Mr Walsh added that he believed the church might in the future consider ordaining older married men.
“The situation may change, the Catholic church is a bit like an enormous oil tanker which takes a long time to change course,” he said.
“I think the most likely thing to happen is for them to decide they will ordain elderly married men.
“They might decide in cases of extreme shortage of clergy, which there are increasingly in certain parts of the world, they may consider the possibility of ordaining older married men.”
Professor Nicholas Lash, Norris-Hulse professor emeritus of divinity at the University of Cambridge, described Cardinal O’Brien’s remarks as “surprising” but also “most refreshing”.
“I think there are plenty of bishops who would welcome a change to the celibacy law but at the moment, if they do, they keep their views to themselves. I thought Cardinal O’Brien’s remarks were most refreshing,” he said.
“I welcome his plain speaking. Most bishops tend to be cagey in public about matters that are disputed.”
Prof Lash added: “I think that apart from anything else, demographically I think it is inevitable that we should allow married men to become priests.
“If it is the case – I believe it to be the case – that the celebration of the Eucharist is at the very heart, the centre of Catholic christianity, then if you have not got any priests you are starving the Church to death. This is what is happening throughout Latin America especially at the moment.”
Cardinal O’Brien told the BBC: “I’d be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should be married.
“It’s 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 said marriage was not considered when he was studying for the priesthood but added he would be happy to see it introduced.
“I would like others to have the choice. In my time there was no choice, you didn’t really consider it too much. It was part of being a priest when I was a young boy, priests didn’t get married and that was it.
“When you were a student for the priesthood, well it was part of the package, as it were, that you were celibate, that you didn’t get married and you didn’t really consider it all that much. You just took your vows of celibacy the way someone else would naturally take their vows of marriage.”
Cardinal O’Brien 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.