How Catholics form their Conscience

What do we know about how Catholics inform their consciences?

A relatively similar pattern of autonomy is evident, too, in regard to nonmarital and same-sex relationships, such that today two in three Catholics, for example, support same-sex marriage.

Pope Francis has refocused Catholic attention on the importance of conscience in decision-making through the two Synod of Bishops on the family he convened in 2014 and 2015 and Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation in response to the bishops’ deliberations.

He revisited this idea in January during his annual address to members of the Roman Rota, the tribunal that evaluates appeals in marriage annulment cases, by reiterating that a well-formed conscience has “a decisive role” in complicated marital situations. He called then for renewed pastoral efforts dedicated to helping people develop an enlightened and faith-infused conscience.

Despite the attention conscience has received since 1968 and the accumulation of more than 40 years of well-regarded survey data tracking Catholics’ attitudes on sexual morality and their construal of church authority, we know surprisingly little about how Catholics inform their conscience.

Moral decision-making

Newly available data from the Sixth National Survey of American Catholics (gathered in April 2017) illuminates Catholics’ moral decision-making process. The question asked: “When you have an important moral decision to make, which, if any, of the following activities or sources, do you use usually look to for guidance?”

Irrespective of what specific moral decisions respondents may have had in mind when answering the question, the overall pattern of responses underscores the significance of private prayer and friends and family rather than official church sources.

Forty per cent of Catholics say that they always pray or meditate in making an important moral decision, 37 per cent talk to close family members and 28 per cent talk to trusted friends. By contrast, only 6 per cent always talk to their local priest or read the catechism, and even fewer consult papal statements (3 per cent) or their diocesan or the U.S. bishops’ website (3 per cent). One in 20 say that in such situations they always use Catholic news media.

While additional numbers of Catholics use all of these sources sometimes, it is nonetheless striking that three in four rarely or never talk to their local priest on such matters or read the catechism. And over 80 per cent rarely or never turn to papal encyclicals for guidance, or to diocesan or U.S. bishops’ websites.

Weekly Mass-goers are twice as likely as others to consult with a priest (17 per cent) and read the catechism (15 per cent) and in general to turn to official Catholic sources. Yet even for such highly committed Catholics, these sources do not eclipse the significance of prayer and of family and friends (see Figure 2).

Prayer, in particular, stands out as the most routine way in which weekly Mass-goers reflect on their moral decisions, with the category “always” used by two-thirds (67 per cent) of them.

Gender differences

It’s well established that women are more conscientious than men and that they bring this greater conscientiousness to their religious engagement. Catholic women’s comparatively greater conscientiousness when it comes to making moral decisions is evident in the large proportions of them who always turn to prayer and family and friends.

However, they are not any more likely than men are to draw guidance from official church sources. As Figure 3 shows, there are essentially no gender differences in the small proportion who always consult a priest or who use the Catechism, papal encyclicals or diocesan/bishops’ websites.

Generational differences

There are few generational differences in the sources used for moral guidance. As Figure 4 shows, older Catholics, the pre-Vatican II generation who came of age prior to 1960 and who are currently in their 70s and 80s, are always or sometimesmore likely than others to pray, to talk with their local priest, to consult Catholic media and to read the catechism and papal statements.

It is also noteworthy that millennial Catholics (those born since 1979) show a comparatively greater tendency to turn to family and friends rather than prayer when making moral decisions. Not surprisingly, given this generation’s digital competence, they are also slightly more likely than older Catholics to look at diocesan/bishops’ website.

Catholics under age 40 (millennials) are composed of almost equal numbers of Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Despite their different socioeconomic and political characteristics, there is little variation in how they go about making moral decisions.

Though they are the most routine sources always used by both groups, a larger proportion of non-Hispanics than Hispanics turn to family (47 percent: 42 percent) and friends (41 percent: 31 percent) for moral guidance; and Hispanics (7 percent) are slightly more likely than their age peers (3 percent) to seek guidance from their local priest (7 percent: 3 percent) and consult Catholic media (6 percent: 3 percent).

The fact that Catholics typically turn to prayer and meditation in discerning important moral decisions points to the enduring relevance of faith in their negotiation of complex moral circumstances. Amid a societal decline in religious affiliation, a decline in the church and sacramental participation habits of those who remain Catholic, and against the backdrop of Catholics’ disagreement with various elements of official church teaching on sexual morality, it is important to recognize that faith engagement still matters.

With lived experience a well-recognized source of legitimate authority in Catholic moral theology, it also makes sense that Catholics would trust close family members and friends for guidance in their moral decision-making. Reflective conversation with others can help broaden the individual’s perspective on their particular situation and nudge them to consider courses of action they might not otherwise have entertained, or by the same token, modify or refrain from what they were initially planning to do.

The data for this article comes from a collaborative research project that has spanned 30 years. The survey beginning of this project was taken in 1987, the year that Pope (now St.) John Paul II made his second visit to the United States. The survey was repeated in 1992, in 1999, and again in 2005, each time documenting changes in the attitudes and behaviors of U.S. Catholics about their faith.

Our fifth survey of American Catholics, near the end of the papacy of Benedict XVI, led to our book American Catholics in Transition, published in 2013. Our sixth survey took place in May 2017, during the fourth year of the papacy of Francis.

The research team has changed over the years and the questions have evolved a bit, but a core set of questions has been repeated on each survey, allowing us to measure change in the attitudes and behaviors of American Catholic laity over time.

Each survey includes a nationally representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. Catholic adults, collected in the weeks following Easter, exactly six years apart. The first three surveys were conducted by the Gallup Organization using English-only telephone interviews. The last three surveys were conducted by the GfK Group (formerly Knowledge Networks) using their probability-based web panel, which is designed to be representative of the United States. These surveys were conducted in English or Spanish, at the discretion of the respondent.

As in all our previous studies, we are grateful for the support of many sponsors. This study was made possible through a generous grant from the Louisville Institute as well as support from these sponsors: the Anderson Foundation, the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, Alfred and Kathleen M. Rotondaro, Kevin J. Healy and the Kathleen Blank Riether Trust.

—William D’Antonio

[Michele Dillon is a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and the author most recently of Postsecular Catholicism: Relevance and Renewal.]


It will not surprise any of my readers (few as you are, and mainly Anglican) that most of our lay Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have decided to prefer the use of their own individual consciences on matters of Family Planning – especially on the vexed issue of ‘artificial contraception’. To quote this survey, it would appear that, in the USA:

” (66 per cent) of American Catholics say that individuals should rely on their own authority in making decisions about contraception. Almost nine in 10 say that one can be a good Catholic without adhering to church teaching on contraception.”

In other important values involving the use of private individual conscience where one’s sexuality is involved, it is by now obvious that most Christians in the Western world – not only Roman Catholics but also Anglicans and Protestant communities – are exercising their own private consciences to determine what is right and wrong in their own sexual responses. This has now led to a majority of Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants in the Western world to accept the fact of the presence of the LGBTI+ community in the Church and to accept the fact that Western countries have legislated for Equal Marriage for Same-Sex couples.

Whereas in the Jewish Tradition (and, one suspects, in the mediaeval Catholic Tradition) it seemed right and proper to reserve one’s sexual instincts for the purpose of procreation – thus coincidentally providing more ethnically religious Jews and more morally upright Catholics to boost the quotient of religious believers – the modern social understanding of a need to limit the burgeoning population growth in a world of strictly limited resources is better realised by today’s young people, as many of them also struggle to keep up with the demands of providing for the larger families formerly expected by the Church.

Also, it may be claimed that the gift of sexuality ought to be understood as not only the means of populating the world but also a preeminent means of expressing the love, support and devotion of two people whose lives are bound together by a shared covenant relationship to each other. This is why the new understanding of sexuality as being not only the means of a providing a binary, procreational activity for the majority of human beings but also a means of expressing, by an intimate relationship, the love with which all human beings are uniquely gifted in their specifically innate sexual orientation.

The individual human conscience – in terms of the ability to exercise one’s moral, social behaviour – is the premier arbiter by which one can be judged as a responsible member of human society. As a Christian, of course, one is bound to listen to the voice of that part Church, the Body of Christ to which one belongs – and to the conscientious interpretation of Holy Writ – but not without the exercise of the native intelligence with which God has equipped most human beings to evaluate and assess in the light of experience the difference between the intrinsic effects of good and evil upon oneself as a fellow member of society, and as a member of Kingdom of God, into which one believes one has been called by Jesus Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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