A ROMAN Catholic priest who wishes to wed must choose between his marriage and his vocation.

Is that fair or practical, given the crisis in vocations in many parts of the world, including the UK? In a frank interview, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic, has suggested that it may be time for his church to reconsider. Though it will displease some traditionalists, this is a timely and thoughtful intervention from the only mainland British cleric who will join the conclave to choose the next Pope.

The straight-talking cardinal has no intention of tying the knot himself but as he points out, priestly celibacy does not form part of a Catholic's "basic dogmatic beliefs". Indeed, several of Christ's apostles were married and celibacy did not become common among priests until around 300AD. It was not mandatory until the Second Lateran Council of 1139. The Eastern Orthodox branch of the church has continued to allow married priests.

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The reasons for imposing celibacy in the West were more cultural and practical than theological. It was associated with a view that women were less worthy and less moral than men. On a practical level, a celibate priest, without family distractions, has more time and energy to focus on his vocation and service to others. Politically, a celibate clergy was a means of ensuring there were no rivals for titles to church lands.

However, as Cardinal O'Brien concedes, though a blessing for some, celibacy does not come naturally to many priests. Indeed, this is part of the background to the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church in recent years. Also, today's priesthood is evolving rapidly, following the defection to Roman Catholicism of many traditionalist Anglicans. They are not only permitted to bring their wives with them but former Anglicans who are married can now study for the priesthood without having to make an agonising choice between family and career. Traditionalists would have difficulty arguing that these married priests are inferior to their celibate counterparts.

Indeed, this development makes it illogical to cling to celibacy. One has only to imagine the resentment of a trainee priest, compelled to choose between his girlfriend and his vocation, while Anglican converts can have the best of both worlds, so to speak. In theory, the situation creates a loophole in such cases, as a trainee would have the option of leaving the church, marrying in the Anglican church and then coming back to the fold.

There were understandable practical and cultural reasons why the early Christian church opted for a celibate priesthood but none of this is written in tablets of stone and the world has now changed. Today there are equally compelling practical and cultural reasons why the Vatican should revisit this issue. Celibacy may be a "dazzling jewel", as Pope Paul VI insisted in 1967, but it is also a comparatively endangered one. Cardinal O'Brien's contribution to this debate should be welcomed. It is time to think the thinkable on priestly celibacy.