Counselling and the Church

The client-based approach to counselling which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s was something of a threat to traditional religious establishments. It suggested that people would come to wholeness through inner reflection and self-direction rather than through the teaching of an external body. The tension between these two approaches was particularly strong in the Catholic Church, and is well illustrated in Opening Up: a History of the Institute of Counselling by David Bollen.

In the Catholic church of the 1960s, the understanding of human nature as revealed by psychology and psychotherapy had little place. Bollen notes that suggestions were made for a course on human counselling be held at St Patrick’s College, Manly, “ to lead seminarians to understanding human nature, its growth and development”. While the written response from the College was equivocal, in practice nothing happened. Faith and priesthood were primarily about dogma and liturgy. Bollen notes that, “in retrospect it is clear [in the training for priesthood] that ‘a drill mentality’ was encouraged and that ‘no adequate place was found … for serious and extended reflection on pastoral needs and experiences of priests” (p. 12).

Yet, there were forces beyond the control of the church which challenged these attitudes and the very nature of religion which it presupposed. Several of these forces are seen in the person of Mary Lewis who took the initiative in raising the possibility of an Institute of Counselling with Archbishop Gilroy in 1969.

Bollen identifies several factors as contributing to the formation of the Institute of Counselling. One was the increasing acceptance of counselling in the wider society. Another was the demands for counselling that were occurring, particularly within the Catholic Church at the time.

The culture of the Institute was very clearly focussed on human growth. Personal evaluation was preferred to formal assessments. In the mid 1990s, this culture gave way to the provision of formally recognised qualifications. In 1996, courses of the Institute were accredited by Australian Catholic University.

The Institute has never become widely known. Nor have the official structures of the Church taken much interest in it. It has kept a low public profile.

Bollen, from an historical perspective, and Mountain, from a case-study approach, open up some important issues regarding the nature of contemporary spirituality. They challenge the churches to think about how they offer pastoral care in contemporary society.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 1, Pages 11-12

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