Catholic schools are failing to equip their pupils with the tools they need to defend their faith, one of the Church's leading figures has claimed.
Even the brightest graduates from Scotland's Catholic schools were no match for the "aggressive secular humanists" they would encounter at university, armed with well-thumbed copies of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Catholic heads were warned at their annual conference last week.
There was a "deep-seated antipathy towards Catholicism in Scotland", said Peter Kearney, media spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland.
He acknowledged Catholic schools had made enormous progress in improving the educational attainment of the Catholic population.
He questioned, however, whether today's pupils could give "a hard-bitten secularist" a run for their money in an argument about the existence of God and pointed out that, while the vast majority of Catholics attended a Catholic school, only between a third and a quarter ended up attending church.
He told the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland's annual conference in Crieff: "I have yet to meet one of our bright young school leavers who could give a hard-bitten secularist a run for their money in a debate on the synthesis of faith and reason or the existence of God - exactly the sort of adversary they will encounter at university, keen to dispute, and armed with their well-thumbed copy of The God Delusion."
The theme of the CHAS conference was "as others see us", with other contributors including education secretary Michael Russell and Glasgow's director of education, Maureen McKenna.
An opinion poll last year to coincide with the first anniversary of the Pope's visit in 2010 gave a "depressing insight" into how Scots saw Catholics, continued Mr Kearney.
In questions ranging from "what is your opinion of Pope Benedict XVI?' to "is the Catholic Church on balance a force for good?", Scots were less positive in their responses than the UK population as a whole, leading Mr Kearney to conclude that hostility to Catholicism was "markedly greater" in Scotland.
He urged headteachers to contact the Church about any anti-Catholic incidents or attitudes that could usefully be recorded.
The Church hoped to receive Scottish government funding to set up a means of recording anti-Catholic behaviour based on a template used by the Jewish community to log incidences of anti-semitism.
The "vigorous defence" of Catholic schools and the Catholic faith was something the next generation was likely to be engaged in throughout their adult lives, Mr Kearney concluded. "We owe them the best preparation possible," he said.
Responding to Mr Kearney's comments, Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service argued there were many young people who left school with "a significant capacity to articulate their faith". The publication of This is our Faith, the new syllabus for Catholic religious education, would "raise the bar" further, he said.
Tony Quinn, headteacher of St Andrew's Academy in Paisley, warned against alienating the vast majority of Scots, who were right-minded people.
The child sex abuse scandal was perhaps at the root of less favourable attitudes towards the Pope and the Catholic Church, he added.
"We should have made a bigger show of our sorrow and remorse," said Mr Quinn.
Original headline: `Catholic pupils need the tools to defend their faith'