Archbishop Sean Brady has mounted a robust defence of Catholic schools in the face of proposed changes to the north's education system, insisting that it "is time to end the facile argument that Church-based schools are divisive".
Dr Brady, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said that "commitment to tolerance, justice and the common good is at the very heart of the Catholic vision of education".
He said that research showed that instead of reinforcing segregation, Catholic schools were "committed to the critical task of promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland".
"For a number of years, the impression has sometimes been given that the existence of denominational schools has been part of the problem here," he said.
"If only the 550 Catholic schools in Northern Ireland didn't exist, it is alleged, then peace and reconciliation would be so much easier to achieve.
"I refute this suggestion emphatically. The recently published Bain Report states quite explicitly 'that all schools and all educational interests in Northern Ireland... wish to play their part in the journey towards the goal of a shared future.
Dr Brady said this showed that the government "now recognises that Catholic schools, who teach 45% of the pupils in Northern Ireland, want to and are able to continue to make their own unique contribution to the vital task of reconciliation".
In remarks to coincide with Catholic education week, which ends on Sunday, Dr Brady said parents had "no need to apologise" for sending their children to Catholic schools.
"They have a right to a faith-based education for their children," he said.
"This right is internationally recognised and is fully compatible with the vision of a diverse, tolerant and reconciled society.
"It is time to end the facile argument that Church-based schools are divisive. Commitment to tolerance, justice and the common good is at the very heart of the Catholic vision of education."
He said Catholic schools performed strongly compared to their state counterparts.
"Despite much higher levels of free school meal entitlement in the Catholic sector, suggesting a higher level of economic disadvantage, government statistics also indicate that Catholic secondary schools non-selective and grammar generally outperformed other sectors in terms of GCSE scores, post-16 staying-on rates and A-level results," he said.
"Catholic schools in Northern Ireland also have a proportionately high number of pupils who move on to third-level education."
Dr Brady's remarks came as Taoiseach Bertie Ahern denounced "aggressive secularism". Speaking in Dublin at the inauguration of a Church-state forum, Mr Ahern said the government could not ignore the importance of society's "religious dimension".