Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who was born in Ballycastle in Antrim, has said he would be happy if priests were able to marry. His remarks have created worldwide headlines as he is the first major church figure to voice such an opinion.
O'Brien added that it was quite clear that many priests struggle to cope with celibacy, and they should be able to have families if they wish.
'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.'
Speaking to the Telegraph, he said that some basic beliefs like opposition to abortion and euthanasia were of 'divine origin' and could never be challenged, but a new Pope could consider whether the church should change its stance on other issues like priestly celibacy.
'For example the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry – Jesus didn't say that,' he told BBC Scotland.
'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.'
O'Brien, who is the leader of the church in Scotland, has admitted that in his own case 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.'
Traditionally, the church requires celibacy as a sign of total dedication to Christ and his followers, and it also served to prevent a priests extended family from inheriting his property or making financial claims.
O'Brien is the only man in Britain with a say in who succeeds Benedict XVI and says he believes it might be the time for a younger pontiff from part of the developing world, including Asia or Africa, where the Catholic faith is thriving.
'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.
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