To understand what is meant by ‘conscience’ we must first of all understand what theologians refer to as our ‘fundamental option’.
A car driver may decide that he or she will never drive in such a way that will endanger themselves, their passengers or anyone else. That is a fundamental option a decision that affects all other decisions or actions that driver might take. And so the daily decisions the driver makes about whether or not to wear a seat belt, about how much he or she can safely drink, about whether or not to jump the lights, overtake the car in front, break the speed limit or drive with baldy tyres are determined by that fundamental option. Of course there will be times when we break the rules (when we don’t bother about the seat belt etc); on those occasions we will be acting against our conscience.
We are all called to make a fundamental option. Not just about regarding the way we drive a car, but the way we plan to live our lives. To make a fundamental option that is in harmony with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is a judgement by which a person decides whether a particular action agrees or disagrees with their fundamental option.
Whenever any of us act against our fundamental option (or you might prefer to call it ‘fundamental way of thinking’) our conscience immediately reminds us that something is wrong. We are bothered. In the life of a Christian, any action or sin against God or neighbour should immediately trigger our conscience to remind us that we are sinning. However, by continually sinning, we gradually quiet our conscience so that we are no longer bothered by our sins. As this happens, our fundamental option or way of thinking is also changing to a direction that accepts sin rather than God.
Of course sometimes we can find ourselves - when others criticise our actions - protesting that ‘My conscience is clear!’. We must be careful, on those occasions, to honestly examine our conscience. To ensure that our conscience is informed. To ensure that our conscience really should be clear!
We all know - from painful experience - that the more often we do the wrong thing, the harder it is to do the right thing. Even when our conscience tells us it is wrong we still find it difficult to change, to stop sinning.
We want to change, but its not easy. That’s where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in. We ask forgiveness from God and from our community. And the forgiveness, the love and the grace we receive in the sacrament gives us the strength to turn our lives around. To be the kind of person God wants us to be. To be the kind of person we want to be; at peace with God and with our neighbour.