EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has said that primary schools should use time allocated for religion to focus on improving pupils' reading and maths.
The minister's controversial comment was a response to complaints from principals who say they have difficulties covering an "overloaded curriculum".
As well as individual subjects, the recently introduced literacy and numeracy strategy requires schools to allocate 30 minutes a week to developing these skills in pupils.
Mr Quinn's comments drew a speedy response from the Catholic bishops, who said that not alone did the school provide for the education of children but the Catholic school did so respecting the faith and treasured values of parents.
"We know in Ireland that parents will generally wish their children attend schools that support their own convictions. The church, and our Constitution, support this choice," a spokesperson said.
Coincidentally, Mr Quinn's comments came only days before the start of Catholic Schools' Week .
The Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) had asked where they were supposed to get the time to do the extra work as well as teach 11 subjects.
Speaking at the IPPN annual conference, president Brendan McCabe sought official guidance from the Department of Education and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
The minister drew a mixed reaction from the 1,100 principals present when he said if it was up to him personally he would take time from the allocation for religion.
He said in other countries, faith formation, which involves preparation for the sacraments, was dealt with by the parish, and teachers focused on education.
Schools are required to spend 30 minutes a day on religion, but an Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) survey last year found more than 70pc of teachers spent more than that, when account was taken of preparing for sacraments, such as First Communion and Confirmation.
Some teachers reported that up to nine hours of time inside school per week was used for sacramental preparation.
Also on the topic of religion, Mr Quinn expressed frustration at the lack of progress in transferring Catholic schools to other patron bodies, as part of his efforts to offer greater choice to parents in areas dominated by religious-run schools.
Surveys conducted in 29 towns and suburbs found support for choice, and Mr Quinn asked the Catholic bishops to identify a school in each area that could be handed over to a new patron.
He said yesterday that progress was slow and acknowledged that it was a difficult issue and people involved had no previous experience.
Where there may be agreement in principle, there was a resistance to handing over one or other school in particular, he said.
The minister said he did not think it was a case of procrastination: "It is just slow."
Mr Quinn had hoped to start the process of transferring schools later this year, but he said yesterday that trying to meet that deadline was "looking increasingly problematic".
Earlier, principals warned that the education of their pupils was being threatened by all the initiatives being rolled out by the department.
IPPN general secretary Sean Cottrell said the 3,200 primary principals were facing "unreasonable" expectations.
They say they are in imminent danger of having neither the time nor the resources to deliver the service pupils deserve because of the increasing and often conflicting demands being made on them.
He told Mr Quinn that the biggest threat to the quality of children's learning was "initiative fatigue. It is draining morale from teachers and principals. The level of expectation on principals is not just great, it's unreasonable."
He said that principals and teachers needed the time and space to absorb and implement the initiatives that had already been introduced and ensure their primary focus remained on their primary responsibility, providing high-quality teaching.