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UK Politics

Priests should be allowed to marry and have sex, says Britain's top Catholic

Cardinal Keith O'Brien says new Pope could consider changing rules on priestly celibacy

The most senior Catholic clergyman in Britain has suggested that priests should be able to marry and have sex. In a major departure from current church teachings, Cardinal Keith O’Brien said the new Pope could consider changing the rules around priestly celibacy.

Catholic priests have in fact been permitted to marry and have sex for longer in the Roman Catholic Church’s lifetime than they have been forbidden. It was only in the eleventh century that the laws insisting upon celibacy for all priests were officially formalised. Anglican clergy who have defected to Rome have also been allowed to stay in marital relationships. 

In an interview with the BBC, Cardinal O’Brien, who is the only person in Britain with a vote in the papal conclave, said the new Pope could look into changing the rules on priestly celibacy because it was not of divine origin.

“For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry - Jesus didn't say that,” he 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.”

However the 74-year-old Cardinal remained adamant that basic dogma and church teachings could never change on issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

The Cardinal’s comments may give succour to those in the Catholic Church who have hoped that women might one day become priests. They have long argued that Jesus never forbade women from becoming clerics and chose to announce his resurrection first to a woman.

The Vatican is acutely aware that there has been a major drop off in priests joining the church in the secular western hemisphere. Traditionally the church has looked to developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America – where clergy figures remain buoyant – to fill the short fall. But more reformist clerics argue that rescinding the church’s insistence on celibacy for its priests would attract new recruits.