When Christians (and in particular, Catholics) begin to investigate pastoral counseling as an option for their needs and struggles, one question often arises early in the process: what does pastoral counseling actually look like in practice? What makes it different than so-called “regular” counseling?
These questions are legitimate, because the answer, while definitive, is often unclear at face value. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t explicit differences between Christian pastoral counseling and more run-of-the-mill secular counseling. In fact, there are several clear differences.
According to Christian Psychologist David Benner, one of the biggest (and perhaps most obvious) identifiers is that Christian pastoral counseling is oriented towards facilitating the client’s “awareness of and response to the call of God to surrender and service”. There must also, of course, be a particular focus on a relationship with Jesus Christ as well as a reliance upon the Holy Spirit.
Benner also recommends a healthy understanding of the concept of sin, and finally, a welcoming of faithful Catholic resources. These can include prayer and scripture reading, but also some of the many valuable Catholic texts. In my personal practice, I favor resources based on Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body because of their integrative and holistic approach to human sexuality.
But I’d argue that the most defining characteristic of Christian pastoral counseling doesn’t necessarily lie in a certain technique or practice, but rather in the attitude behind the counseling itself. This, I believe, is why the differences between Christian pastoral counseling and “regular counseling” are often so unclear to the curious layman. Christian counseling – and in particular, Catholic counseling – differs primarily from its secular counterpart in that it provides an ethos for secular counseling’s ethic; it provides a holistic, anthropological context for the values secular counseling already promotes, such as healing the broken and helping people to become all they can/were meant to be.
This means, at least to my mind, that while the Catholic version of some largely secular profession might represent a kind of differentiation, Catholic counseling on the other hand represents to secular counseling a kind of deepening. This allows Catholic counseling to take many secular counseling practices and approaches one step further.
For instance, if you were to (wrongly) conclude that you were a bad person due to some past misdeed, the average secular counselor would perhaps attempt to illustrate in some way that we are all more than our actions. The Catholic counselor would most likely do the same, except that his belief in our being more than our actions would stem from his belief that our identities are founded not on our actions but on our being children of God. In a sense, then, the Catholic counselor is taking the secular counselor’s practice one step further by deepening it with a Catholic ethos. For another example, one might consider the prevalence of forgiveness in secular counseling as a means of getting past old offenses or traumas. Again, we see an instance in which the Catholic counselor can take a normal part of secular counseling one step further, in this case because Catholicism provides a Christological context for forgiveness.
These are just two examples which illustrate how the anthropology upheld in Catholic counseling can provide a kind of deepening or even a retroactive foundation for many of the practices and approaches valued in secular counseling, but there are surely many more.
It’s for this reason that I’d heartily recommend pastoral counseling to the Catholic or Christian individual seeking help. Because the differences between it and its secular alternative lie more often in the why than they necessarily do in the what, the benefits offered by pastoral counseling can be much greater. The pastoral counselor can use the most cutting edge techniques or theories, but integrate them with or modify them according to the holistic, holy worldview presented by authentic Christianity.