The Association of Catholic Priests said Mr Quinn’s remarks — made just before the start of the bishops’ designated Catholic Schools Week — could be interpreted as a threat and were “unhelpful, unwarranted, and unacceptable”.
“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 organisation said.
It warned the comments could come back to haunt the minister by making Catholic parents distrust his motives in initiating the patronage negotiations.
“Is the debate on patronage and the process that attends it really meant to facilitate the hand-over of a minority of schools to facilitate a more diverse form of patronage, or is it part of a more ambitious attempt to remove religion from the public square?”
Mr Quinn’s suggestion was also heavily criticised by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a former teacher and education minister, who said it was “insensitive”.
“I was amazed at that. I think it’s a very simplistic idea,” he said, stressing that children picked up numeracy and literacy skills not just from dedicated classes but from the wider curriculum.
“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.
“He just doesn’t have a broader compass in relation to schools with a religious ethos and I think he should lay off somewhat,” said Mr Martin.
A spokeswoman for the minister said he was expressing a personal preference for how he would find more time for maths and reading. “The minister is not saying that religion should not be taught in schools,” she said.
Mr Quinn is also facing criticism over his lack of consultation with teachers over new ‘fitness to teach’ hearings to be established by the Teaching Council.
While two teachers unions, the ASTI and the INTO, are in favour of the new forum and associated powers to sanction teachers, the Teachers Union of Ireland said that it was concerned about the revelation that some hearings would be in public.
The TUI is seeking guarantees that children will not have to give evidence in public, and is demanding assurances that complainants will have to exhaust local complaints and disciplinary procedures within schools before using the Council.
General secretary, John MacGabhann, said clarity over the appeals procedures was also needed because of concerns teachers would have no option but to go through the High Court.
“You can say to people they have a right of appeal but if exercising the right of appeal is beyond their financial capacity, then you don’t have an appeal systems that’s fair or operational.”
Mr Quinn’s spokeswoman said that the new procedures were well flagged in advance and that it was up to the Teaching Council to provide further clarity if needed.