The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland has criticised educational policymakers for diluting parents' rights to access schools with an unashamed faith-based ethos.

Archbishop Eamon Martin also said parishes face the challenge to support families whose children attend schools run by Education and Training Boards and other non-Catholic bodies.

Addressing a conference on education in Dublin, the Archbishop of Armagh, whose diocese straddles the border, said it should not be ignored that increasing numbers of Catholic children are no longer attending Catholic schools.

"This presents clear issues for parents, families and parishes in ensuring that these children are receiving appropriate religious instruction and are being suitably prepared for the sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation," he said.

He highlighted the example of a recent decision by the umbrella group ETBI (Education and Training Board Ireland) to end faith formation during the school day in its Community National Schools.

He said: "…..as it has been determined that programmes such as the Goodness me, Goodness you are not adequate as a Catholic religious education programme or for Sacramental reception, the challenge remains for parishes and dioceses to support families whose children attend these, and other schools which are not Catholic schools.

"Situations like this will perhaps be the catalysts to restore the core responsibility for evangelisation and catechesis in Ireland to parents and family, assisted appropriately by the living parish community." 

He invited the gathering - which was organised by The Irish Catholic newspaper - to reflect on preparations for Ireland's hosting of the World Meeting of Families next August, a gathering which it is anticipated Pope Francis will attend.

He said that during the lead-up, all Catholics will benefit from a renewed focus on the question of where their soul is.

"[It is] a question that is ultimately one for parents, who are the first educators of their children in faith, but not the only, and certainly not lonely ones."

He said Catholic schools recognise that our young people will have to find their way in a world filled with aggression, war and torture, abuse, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, homelessness and austerity.

"They will have to cope as often with failure and disappointment as with success and achievement," he added.

"It is no surprise, then, that Catholic parents, families, and parishes will defend the importance of their school's ethos, or 'characteristic spirit' against those who lack an understanding of it, or would actively seek to undermine it."

He continued: "There is a reasonable concern that much of current educational policy in Ireland would promote a generic model of primary education and dilute the right of parents to have access to a school which unashamedly and intentionally lives by a faith-based ethos."