Orbital steering is invoked to explain how the three-dimensional structure of a small self-cleaving RNA, the hammerhead ribozyme, both prevents and enhances RNA autocatalysis. Within the conserved catalytic core of the ribozyme, the position of the 2' oxygen atom of the G8 ribose is observed to be aligned almost perfectly with the phosphorus atom and the 5' oxygen atom of the adjacent A9 phosphate group for self-cleavage via an in-line attack mechanism. Despite this apparent near-perfect atomic positioning, no cleavage takes place. The explanation proposed is that a network of hydrogen bonds in the ribozyme core orients or steers the orbitals containing the electron lone pairs of the attacking nucleophile (the 2' oxygen atom) away from the A9 phosphorus atom, eliminating overlap with the vacant phosphorus d-orbitals despite the near-perfect in-line positioning of the oxygen atom, thus preventing catalysis. Because of the near-perfect atomic positioning of the 2' oxygen atom relative to the phosphate group, orbital steering effects in this case are fortuitously uncoupled from conformational, distance and orientation effects, allowing an assessment of the catalytic power due purely to orbital steering. In contrast, a conformational change at the cleavage site is required to bring the 2' oxygen atom and the scissile phosphate group into atomic positions amenable to an in-line attack mechanism. In addition, the conformationally changed structure must then steer the lone-pair orbitals of the correctly positioned 2' oxygen atom toward the scissile phosphorus atom in order for cleavage to take place. We estimate that fulfillment of each of these two required changes may contribute separately an approximately 1000-fold rate enhancement, potentially accounting for a significant fraction of the catalytic power of this ribozyme. Orbital steering therefore appears to be a general phenomenon that may help to explain catalysis in both ribozymes and protein enzymes in a unified manner.