CATHOLIC Church leaders last night said they were shocked by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's target of transferring more than 1,500 church schools to other patrons.
And they argued that his start date for the transfers to begin in next January was too ambitious.
The minister is setting up a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism which will report by the end of October, with the possibility of transfers starting early next year. But church sources said the minister was going too far, too fast.
Around 3,000 primary schools -- roughly 90pc of the total -- are run by the church and the minister intends to cut this figure by 50pc to allow for greater diversity.
While they welcomed the forum, church sources said it was the church that first raised the issue of an over supply of Catholic schools and that they were finalising a lengthy period of consultation on the issue.
The Catholic Schools Partnership, which was established by the Irish Episcopal Conference and the Conference of Religious of Ireland, is to publish a position paper next week.
The results of its consultation process will be analysed by representatives from all dioceses at four regional assemblies in June 2011.
Sources say the paper will stress the issue of parental choice and is likely to call for pilot projects in a small number of areas where there is felt to be an over-supply of church schools.
"It's not an easy matter to decide which school should close -- there are also legal issues involved," said one source.
However, a protracted trial period is unlikely to satisfy the minister who wants action on this issue quickly.
He has cited the views of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who stated back in 2007 that he had 90pc of all Dublin schools under his control to cater for about 50pc of the population who actively wanted a Catholic education.
The forum will look at the practicalities of how transferring or divesting of patronage should operate for individual primary schools in communities where this is appropriate.
The advisory group to run the forum and prepare a report will be chaired by John Coolahan, professor emeritus at NUI Maynooth. The other members include Dr Caroline Hussey, former UCD registrar, and Fionnuala Kilfeather, former chief executive of the National Parents Council (primary).
They will advise the minister on how best it can be ensured that the system provides a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none.
Prof Coolahan said the issue of which schools would be moved from Catholic control could be decided by ballots of parents.
Gaelscoileanna, the voluntary organisation, said it hoped the forum would provide an opportunity to tackle the issues in relation to the provision of Irish-medium education.
Dr John Murray, director of pro-family organisation The Iona Institute, said: "While we welcome the setting up of this forum, we call on the minister to respect the autonomy of whatever number of Catholic and other denominational schools remain after this process is completed.
"This means guaranteeing the admissions policy of those schools, their employment policy, and also that they can teach whatever is compatible with their beliefs."