Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the Catholic Church is dragging its feet over the divestment process in schools.
The divestment process is part of a Government plan to remove schools from Catholic patronage in order to boost parental choice and create greater diversity at primary level.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Archbishop Martin said there would be no future for Catholic schools if there wasn't a viable alternative to them and a wide number of schools available with a different ethos.
“I think that some of the what I would call educational establishment in the Catholic Church are dragging their feet... Admittedly communities don’t like change, teachers don’t like change, they’re not the only ones. I do feel, though, that we can’t just go on talking. We have to really start showing things now,” he said.
“I feel that certain people are dragging their feet and feeling that well if we don’t talk about it it’ll go away. It won’t and the danger is we will end up without Catholic schools .
Asked about Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan's comment in today's Irish Times that primary schools should be obliged to accept pupils based on proxmiity rather than their religious denomination where schools are oversubscribed, Archbishop Martin said the church had changed the enrolment policy in a number of areas in Dublin "to facilitiate something like that."
“That said, oversubscription is generally to do with the fact there aren’t enough schools in an area. Or that schools are being built late. And you can’t blame the church for that. In certain circumstances we have actually agreed to that. If schools are oversubscribed and people arrive late well that’s a problem that has to be faced.”
He said everyone was “willing to see schools given up” but very few people were willing to “give up their school.”
“If a school is working well in a community no-one wants a change to that. But change is taking place. The population is changing. The views of teachers are changing. If you don’t address them we won’t drift into what we want. I hope we can have a robust discussion about this. And not leave it to just when temperatures get high and a problem arises.”
Some 90 per cent of State-funded primary schools remain under Catholic Church patronage.
Controversy over equal access to school is an issue with a minority of primary schools - about 20 per cent - which are over-subscribed.
At a Mass in Dublin on Sunday marking 150 years of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People, Archbishop Martin said a church was needed that could respond more effectively to change.
“The church is slow to change. Inertia may seem to mean that things can go on as they were and are; but the opposite is the case,” he said.
“I spoke some time ago of a ‘reality check’; I could also have said ‘a wake-up call’. Times have changed in Irish society and the church must change.”
He continued: "The church must change not to go along with society and neither to opt out of society but to find the best space possible to be free and unencumbered to bring the challenging message of Jesus Christ to society.
“The church must free itself and become unencumbered even from positions which may in the past have been positive and useful to both church and society, including in the control of schools and institutions.”