Once called ‘‘Cardinal Controversy’’ by his critics, O’Brien has frequently spoken out on homosexuality, adopting a more censorious attitude in recent years. Before his elevation to cardinal, he spoke publicly about the number of gay priests in the church and rebuked another Scottish bishop who had said that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in Catholic schools.
But in more recent years, he has hardened his stance, opposing gay rights and describing homosexuality as immoral. He has opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to adopt children. He has also argued against same-sex marriage, which the British Parliament is in the process of approving, calling it ‘‘harmful to the spiritual, mental and spiritual well-being’’ of those involved. Last November, Stonewall, a British gay-rights group, gave the cardinal its ‘‘bigot of the year’’ award.
O’Brien has broken with other strictures that are common among conservatives in the church hierarchy. He drew headlines in Britain last week by telling the BBC that a new pope should consider abandoning the church’s rule on celibacy. ‘‘It is a free world,’’ he said, ‘‘and I realize that many priests have found it difficult to cope with celibacy and felt the need of a companion, a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.’’
Stepping directly into the contentious maneuvering over who should be the next pope, he suggested that ‘‘it might be time for a younger pontiff from part of the developing world,’’ perhaps from Africa or Asia, ‘‘where the Catholic faith is thriving.’’
He added, ‘‘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 is time to think of the developing world as being a source of excellent men.’’