April 19, 2016

Most U.S. Catholics rely heavily on their own conscience for moral guidance

Few Catholics rely on pope for moral guidanceDespite Pope Francis’ overwhelming popularity, only about one-in-ten American Catholics say they turn to the pope “a great deal” for guidance on difficult moral questions, according to a Pew Research Center survey on religion in everyday life.

Rather, most Catholics say they look inward for guidance in their lives. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (73%) say they rely “a great deal” on their own conscience when facing difficult moral problems, compared with 21% who look to the Catholic Church’s teachings, 15% who turn to the Bible and 11% who say they rely a great deal on the pope.

Catholics, both highly religious and not, rely on their own conscience for moral guidancePerhaps not surprisingly, Catholics who are highly religious (defined in our survey as those who say they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week) are considerably more likely than other Catholics to seek guidance from church teachings, the Bible and the pope. Still, no more than half of highly religious Catholics give great weight to any of these sources of guidance, while 74% say they rely a great deal on their conscience.

Relying on one’s own conscience doesn’t necessarily indicate a conflict with church teachings. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes that “a well-formed conscience is upright and truthful” and that “[t]he education of the conscience is a lifelong task.” According to the Catechism, the “Word of God” (i.e., the Bible) and the “authoritative teaching of the Church” should guide the formation and education of the conscience. And Pope Francis’ recent proclamation, “Amoris Laetitia,” makes several references to the importance of Catholics’ individual consciences in issues related to family life.

As a result, Catholics may not see the four response options in this survey as entirely distinct. It is possible they may not look directly to the Bible, the pope or the Catholic Church’s teachings when making difficult moral choices, but they may be guided by these sources indirectly through their own “well-formed” conscience.

We also asked Catholics – along with all the respondents in the recent survey – a separate set of questions about how they make “major life decisions.”

Like Americans as a whole, Catholics say they are most likely to rely on themselves when making big decisions. Indeed, about eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics (84%) say they depend “a lot” on their own research in the decision-making process. Advice from family was the second most popular choice among Catholics, with half saying they rely a lot on relatives.

Fewer Catholics say they rely a lot on prayer or personal reflection (39%) or advice from professional experts (30%). And only one-in-ten say they rely a lot on advice from religious leaders (10%) when making major life decisions.

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Religious Leaders

  1. Photo of Claire Gecewicz

    is a research assistant focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Ruah Bull6 months ago

    I was glad at the end of the article there was an acknowledgement that the ‘inward glance’ may in fact be formed by scripture and Catholic teaching. Unlike my evangelical friends, I don’t open the Bible to get a message when I am in discernment- but my on-going study of and lectio divina with scripture and spiritual reading forms my foundation.
    What I found most distressing- and is different than my many Protestant colleagues- is how few of us turn to prayer when we are making a decision. It’s another example of how poor adult faith formation is in our church. I don’t know about your parishes, but in mine, the education is all oriented to kids and families. Teaching that spiritual growth is a life long process- and one undergirded by a life of prayer- is missing. As a spiritual director, I feel this lack acutely as I look around my community. I pray that more Catholics come to personal prayer as part of any discernment process.

  2. Peter Calabrese6 months ago

    You acknowledge the problem with this poll any Catholic with proper catechesis could anser this question a variety of ways and probably shuold answer consceince. You then create a false conclulsion.

    A better question would be, On what do you rely most to form your conscience?
    A. The Bible and other Tradition of the Church
    B. The current Pope’s Writings
    C. Some of the above and my reflections on life
    D. Current trends

  3. Jessica Gizzi6 months ago

    And therein lies the problem. With or without the pope as moral voice; we are not a catholic country. Latin american countries are. We listen to the constitution in America, not the Pope.

  4. Packard Day6 months ago

    Given how often the individual Catholics sitting in the pews on Sunday have been sold-out by the morally bankrupt hierarchy of men now running the Church over these past fourteen years; can anyone really blame them for their profound skepticism? Anyone?

    1. Anonymous6 months ago

      I agree with everything you said except for “14 years” you did not go back nearly long enough, try try 55 years!

      1. Jessica Gizzi6 months ago

        Try 500 years.

      2. Sharon O6 months ago

        Try centuries