22/02/2013 15:01 GMT | Updated 22/02/2013 16:44 GMT

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's Most Senior Catholic, Says Priests Should Be Able To Marry

Priests should be able to get married because they find celibacy "difficult", Britain's most senior Roman Catholic has said.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien is an outspoken critic of plans to legalise gay marriage and was named 'bigot of the year' by gay rights charity Stonewall.

But the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said he would be "happy" for weddings to be available for priests.

Keith O'Brien is a fierce critic of gay marriage plans

He was speaking to the BBC ahead of trip to Rome where he will help elect the next pope, after the resignation of Benedict XVI.

He said: "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, 74, stood down from some frontline duties in the Catholic Church in Scotland last year due to his age.

He quit the position of Bishops' Conference of Scotland, the key decision-making body in the church.

He said that marriage was not considered when he was studying for the priesthood but that he would be happy to see it introduced.

He added: "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 welcomed Pope Benedict when he visited Scotland in 2010.

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.

But the Catholic Church criticised the charity's award.

Speaking on Friday night, Richard Lane, Stonewall's External Affairs Officer, said: "Many Catholics will welcome Cardinal

O'Brien's comments.

"Sadly the prayers of gay Catholics who wish to marry the person they love seem to leave the Cardinal unmoved."