EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has come under fire from priests for making "insensitive" comments about the teaching of religion in schools.
The Labour TD has attracted a wave of criticism after he claimed that primary schools should divert time spent teaching religion to areas such as English and maths.
Mr Quinn suggested that religion should be taught at home and in parishes, rather than in primary schools.
The Association of Catholic Priests last night described Mr Quinn's remarks as "unacceptable" and accused him of attempting to devise educational policy "on the hoof".
"It seems at best a hapless effort to devise educational policy 'on the hoof' and, at worst, an indication of an intention to undermine religious education in the vast majority of our schools," the association said.
"The minister's comment will be widely interpreted as an effort to undermine religion and religious-run schools and may damage the negotiations, at present at an advanced stage, to provide a wider choice for parents."
Mr Quinn made the remarks during the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principal Network (IPPN). Questions were raised in relation to how schools will find the time to implement the literacy and numeracy strategy, which requires schools to allocate 30 minutes a week to developing these skills in pupils.
In response, Mr Quinn said if it was up to him he would take time from the allocation for religion.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin called on Mr Quinn to "lay off" schools with a religious ethos.
"It seems to me that Ruairi Quinn has a particular problem with religion and a problem with religion in our schools. I think he has to accept that parental choice is key here and should be respected," Mr Martin told RTE's 'This Week' programme.
"I think he is insensitive to people of particular religion. Many people of the Catholic religion, for example, feel he is anti-Catholic education. His attitude to some rural schools for example has been insensitive to and oblivious to the impact that that policy can have on Presbyterian schools and Protestant schools in the border areas, for example.
"And I think he just doesn't have a broader compass in relation to schools with a religious ethos and I think he should lay off somewhat."
Meanwhile, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said yesterday that schools with a Catholic ethos helped children "find a clear direction in their lives".
Speaking at the start of Catholic Schools' Week, Mr Martin acknowledged the role played by schools in the formation of religious faith
"Together, in our Catholic schools, we help young people to become stronger followers of Jesus, and to find a clear direction in their lives despite all the conflicting and confusing messages that surround them."