The cork in the bucket

During the summer this newspaper carried a story about non-directive counselling. There had been some criticism of the charity, Life, on the grounds that no counselling by a Catholic organisation should be non-directive, with the implication that this applied to Life perhaps more than many other organisations.

The criticism is understandable. The Church upholds a moral law which is not only informed by God’s revelation but is further understood through the application of natural law. She teaches how human beings should behave in order to flourish in the ways which its Creator intended. It would follow that any loyal Catholic organisation which counsels clients on their behaviour must, first and foremost, present this moral law.

I was once a counsellor with Marriage Care, which was then known as the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. I cannot speak for Life, of which I am not a member, but I can look at non-directive counselling operated in terms of a marriage counsellor. We worked on the principle that people tended not to change their ways as a result of direction from outside; they were much more likely to do so as a result of discovery from inside. That is, our task was to help them free themselves from a tangle of half-digested emotions, ignorance or lack of relationship skills, giving them an opportunity to change through their own internal growth. We were midwives to their forming of their own consciences; we were not directors.

This required one central assumption: that people freed from such bonds would move in positive directions through the work of the Holy Spirit. The picture in my mind was of a cork held down by detritus in a bucket of water. As the detritus was removed so the cork floated upwards. We were no more than a facilitating framework; the energy came from the Spirit.

This may sound woolly and sentimental but it was by no means that. We followed what was known as the Skilled Helper model. This was developed by Fr Gerard Egan, a Jesuit from Loyola University Chicago. Later, I wrote a simplified account of the methodology for the use of business managers. It was translated into several European languages and seems to have been widely read and used.

The model started with the counsellor listening to the client and demonstrating, through his reflections, that he had grasped how the client experienced the issue. (Of course, the client will often be a she, and most frequently a couple that is married or living together.) He then, with tentative suggestions, helped the client to make sense of this experience. The aim was to help the client to identify the essence of the difficulties and to understand with greater clarity what factors were at work. Perhaps the counsellor would spot patterns of behaviour or inconsistencies which needed examination. Sometimes the client might be invited to change his frame of reference – to that of his partner, for instance. Gradually the complex would resolve itself into basically simple issues – and frequently one key issue.

The next stage was to help the client to set objectives for change. Once again the counsellor might use his skills to help, but the objectives were not chosen by him. This was followed by looking to resources which might be needed to achieve these objectives. These would sometimes be by way of relevant information, sometimes by way of outside agencies who could assist, and sometimes by way of training. In this last regard it was often necessary to devote several hours to training a couple how to communicate with each other, perhaps for the first time.

The next stage was to follow up progress, objective by objective. It was important to the client to have the step by step achievements acknowledged. And it was often necessary to revisit the earlier stages when difficulties arose.

As a counsellor I found this an inspiring process. I came to admire many of my clients who, despite the odds and the shaming admissions, were prepared to seek out help. I was learning virtue from them rather than them from me.

And I was left in no doubt that clients who, with some humility, were trying to find a better path, had instinctively a clear view of the moral law. The difference, perhaps, was that they had been given an opportunity to grasp it for themselves.

Naturally, I was often asked by curious Catholics about my success rate. This made me look at my own objectives. I decided that what counted as success was that the client left me with an enhanced freedom to make decisions according to a better-informed conscience. They may not have gone the whole way, but they should have gone as far as they were able at that time.

But, perhaps ironically, the client I remember best was not married at all. He had been leading a life of somewhat sordid immorality but he wanted to go to Communion at Easter. Yet he could not bring himself to confess to a priest. So he went through the whole story with me. I asked his permission to have the parish curate join us. The three of us went through the story again. The next day he went to the same priest for Confession. I do not know what he said, of course, but he received Communion that Easter Sunday. I don’t like trying to guess what the Holy Spirit may, or may not, have done but, on this occasion, I feel quite sure.

Come and tell us what you think on

About Quentin

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42 Responses to The cork in the bucket

  1. Without having any experience of the kinds of situation you describe, I imagine that a client ready to follow moral directions from a Catholic organisation might want encouragement but would have no need of counselling except on ways and means. Otherwise guidance must start from where she is, not where we might prefer her to be . As you imply, she would be much likelier to follow a path she had worked out for herself than one to which she felt a counsellor had tried to constrain her.

  2. Vincent says:

    I can readily understand this approach, and I am sure that it is effective in many instances. having said that is there no role for for plainly telling a client that this of that activity or way of life is plain wrong?

    • st.joseph says:

      A little observation I noticed .
      The 2nd Class Christmas postage Christmas stamp has a picture of an Angel and Matthew 1-21.
      Are things looking up.
      Just a thought-no relation to counselling-but a start!

  3. Quentin says:

    Vincent, you make an interesting point. One of the ways in which the counsellor helps the client towards freedom is through providing proper information, And if a client asks what the Church’s teaching is on a matter, he must explain it. In fact I was never asked about this; I presume that this was because the client acknowledged the truth through our natural instinct to distinguish good from bad, or that he was simply familiar with it from the word go.

    There can be a danger, though, because of the “no compromise” nature of some Church teachings, e.g. sex outside marriage is always gravely sinful” or “homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong”. Clients may well have to work their way up towards full acceptance, stage by stage. I’m not sure that is helps to ask them to do so while waving a disapproving finger at them until they succeed.

    In fact it is not the sort of one issue questions which concerns clients. For instance, no one needs telling that marital violence is wrong or that continual bickering harms the children.

  4. Iona says:

    Can one assume that anyone going to an organisation such as Life for counselling about an unwanted pregnancy is already aware that Life offers a “positive” (pro-life) viewpoint (that’s how they advertise themselves on the London Underground, anyway)? If so, any potential client is probably going to Life (rather than, e.g. Brook) with the question: “What are my options if I continue with this pregnancy?” rather than “Please help me to clarify my ideas about whether or not to continue with this preganancy.”

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, you might like to compare your points with this extract from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service:

      “Counselling can be an important part of the process when you are deciding what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. Our unique approach allows you to discuss your options in a friendly and supportive environment and helps you to make the decision that is right for you. To make an appointment please call ….

      …Please be aware that some organisations advertising free pregnancy testing and counselling on the internet and in phone books are strongly opposed to abortion. They will not discuss all the options available to you in an unbiased way. If they talk about abortion as an option at all, it may involve negative, unevidenced or untrue claims, or statistics. They may not provide you with any information on how to access abortion treatment.”

      Of course you’re right; it’s hard to know which organization is giving genuine disinterested counselling. I am supposing that Life was only attacked in the newspaper because it was doing that — and some thought that they shouldn’t. The bpas ( is in the business of providing abortions. Is that a consideration?

    • tim says:

      This is probably true of most genuine clients. However, some counsellors have fallen foul recently of what might be described as ‘trap orders’ – journalists from the liberal papers who ring in pretending to be what they are not, and succeed (or claim to succeed) in getting told that abortion is not really a very good option.

  5. Iona says:

    St. Joseph – I think the Post Office alternates the theme of its Christmas stamps, – one year religious, the next year non-religious.

  6. claret says:

    I suppose an inherent difference between marriage counselling and pregnancy counselling is that with the former the vast majority of people would see that saving a marriage is a very good thing while saving the life of an unborn child is not so easily recognised as such. Hence BPAS are able to promote (counsel ?) abortion as a benefit rather than something to be avoided.
    On those grounds perhaps a different counselling approach is needed. One size does not fit all.

    • st.joseph says:

      May I take this opportunity to mention that to-morrow the 12th December is the Feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe the Protectress of the Unborn.
      For those who dont know the history
      Our Lady has promised to Blessed Juan Deigo ‘Here I will hear their weeping,their sorrow and WILL REMEDY and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.
      Less than 20 years later, 9 million of the inhabitants of the land,who professed for centuries a polytheistic and human sacrificing religion, are converted to Christianity.
      It will happen again with prayer.
      Our Lady of Gaudalupe ,intercede for us. Thank you.
      This Feast falls between the Immaculate Conception and the Birth of Jesus.

    • Quentin says:

      Claret, you’re right of course. The word “counselling” can carry many shades of meaning. But modern counselling organisations tend to mean it in the sense in which I use it.

      We often used to say that our clients hesitated to come because they expected that we would shove the Church down their throats, and the clergy didn’t champion us because they expected that we wouldn’t. I remember one pp telling me very directly that unless I could guarantee that I would say exactly the same to my clients as the Pope would, if he were in my place, he wouldn’t refer any of his parishioners to me. Sadly I was unable to give that guarantee.

      But of course we got good support from other priests. My wife, in fact, mounted a very successful referral system which covered the whole of our London Borough (and Deanery).

  7. st.joseph says:

    Quentin I understand exactly where you are coming from.
    The attitude of shoving the Church down peoples throats is unecessary if one is a trained Counsellor.Maybe that is why Jesus spoke in Parables.Married to a non-catholic teaches one that,also a mistake with ones children too.Yes they must be informed,but there are ways and means.

  8. claret says:

    An interesting twist on: “what would Jesus say/do ?” seems to be ‘What would the Pope say/do ?”
    I cannot speak for anyone but what life has taught me is that what people would say in reality when actually faced with the person asking the question is usually at variance with what they would say to them when not faced with them !
    On that basis I would guess that the Pope would be governed more by his humanity than by Church doctrine if he ever found himself in the situation that the pp described. (Perhaps if the PP was secretly listening in he might be very disappointed with the Pope’s response.)

    • Quentin says:

      Certainly a near example of you point is provided by the question of Limbo. You will remember the rather guarded statement by the Vatican Theological Commission who said that the idea that unbaptised infants are fit for heaven is based on “reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

      JP2 however went for broke. He said, addressing women who had had abortions “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness of your child, who is now living with the Lord.”

  9. st.joseph says:

    I somehow think that the mothers of the babies they aborted will always feel the pain
    It is the doctors I pity.
    Claret if I am right what you are saying I think the same. The Doctrine is there but how it is proclaimed is another matter.
    Would the Holy Father say to to someone-‘there is no Salvation outside the Catholic Church’!

  10. mike Horsnall says:

    No the Holy Father would not say that and nor does he even believe it -from what I’ve read of his works that is. Mothers of aborted babies will not always feel the pain of it either I don’t think . We feel the sorrow of it , they feel the pain of it, but all tears will be washed away and all will be well-its just that our hearts cannot grasp the depth and power of Gods mercy – at the end the only tears will be those of gratitude.

  11. st.joseph says:

    Mike take a look into the web Rachael’sVinyard UK- and you will see the pain that mothers who have aborted their babies and also listen to their testomonies. They will tell you that the pain never leaves them-even when the sorrow leaves. There sorrow leaves when knowing that they are forgiven and their babies are with the Lord.
    I still feel pain when I see aborted babies- mine were miscarriages.
    Women say there is an emptyness dull ache that never goes away.

    Now to the abandoned ‘de fida dogma of the ‘extra ecclesia nulla salus’ you may be surprised at how many traditionalist catholics believe that it is still so and it ought not to have been abandoned, and is still relevant.
    Thank you for re-iterating my comment.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    Sorry St Joseph,
    Wrong end of the stick as usual. Several years of working for samaritans tell me that people do, as you say, carry regrets with them to their deaths. I meant afterwards when all tears are wiped away.

    • st.joseph says:

      Thank you Mike.
      Rachel’s Vineyard is doing so much good work in counselling and it is sad that it isn’t given the recognition it deserves.
      I think the problem is that there is such a stigma about abortion that people are wary of bringing it to the public notice in case it offends the women who have sadly had one.
      The pro-life people like SPUC do not get all the gratitude they deserve for the work they do.
      I asked a priest to put a poster up for the 40 days for life this year and he was quite appalled that I should suggest such a thing and it would be very uncharitable towards the women in the parish who have had an abortion.
      He did eventually apologise but I dont feel he could really understand why we prayed.
      I can see both sides and it must be difficult for clergy in a situation like this,but he wasn’t being asked to preach from the Pulpit!
      ‘Silent no More’ is something that Rachels Vineyard believe in- it shows how not only the babies are victims but also the mothers!. It must stop!!

      • St.joseph,
        You have a good point, but unfortunately there is a feeling that while SPUC’s objectives are thoroughly admirable, its tactics have been counter-productive, at least in the past – I haven’t seen any of their recent publications. Of course in some quarters Christians are regarded as essentially fanatical if not idiotic, and in that situation it is very difficult to gain a hearing for reasoned argument.

  13. st.joseph says:

    Peter I agree with you and it is unfortunate, that it has to sound so agressive at time.s
    But I can’t see how the alternative can show a picture of a less aggresive tone when the act is so agressive to babies even up to birth It was the ‘Silent Scream Film’ that converted my late husband and my son to working continuesly for the anti abortion campaign.
    It isn,t very nice to see but then it isn’t very nice what is done to babies either, especially when doctors take the oath to save life.And mostly for social reasons, not saying that young girls take it lightly I am sure they dont.

  14. claret says:

    The question of causing possible offence when preaching from the pulpit is a hard one to deal with. However there are hard sayings in the Gospel readings that have to be read out. Jesus teaching on divorce being a case in point. A parish priest through the seal of confession will know of parishioners who have broken the ten commandments, sometimes in serious/mortal sin.
    (Adultery for example, ) but this should not let that deter him from condemning it from the pulpit.
    We read in the gospels of how many people turned away from Jesus because his teachings were too hard. They were not always about love and forgiveness.

    • st.joseph says:

      Claret I thought that the Church allowed divorce.
      It was re-marriage that was forbidden.
      And then if one did re-marry they abtained from Holy Communion.
      I would have thought that if a priest knew the person and he had heard their confession- a quiet word in their ear would be more appropriate.
      I think also there are ways when the Gospel on Sunday the priest would then be able to point out the teachings of Jesus when the appropriate subject came up.
      It then would not seem to be a point made out of the ‘blue’ so to speak.
      There are ways and means of saying things.

      • Horace says:

        As far as I know the Church allows a married couple to separate (for grave reason) and if necessary they may go through a civil divorce. This civil divorce however does not terminate the marriage.

  15. st.joseph says:

    That is the reason why they are unable to receive Holy Communion.
    If the Marriage is not valid they will have to have a ‘civil divorce.’

  16. st.joseph says:

    What I fail to understand and that is if a couple adminster the Sacrament of Matrimony on each other- why then do they in all conscience need a Committee to make it invalid if they have a good enough reason-surely a priest can do the same in his presence or Bishop. And why the £1000 fees.?
    That may sound very simple but I think it would be a lot more charitable.
    After all it is the person who will have to face God and if they lie to a priest they will lie to a committee.
    I know people who have left the Church because of a failed marriage and re-married and unable to receive Holy Communion, especially as that is the time when they need Holy Communion the most.
    I often think of what Jesus said about divorce, but was He not speaking about the law of Moses when aWrit were issued and sometimes for no good reason.
    Also adultry can be a sin within marriage if a man looks at another women with lust, he commits adultry in his heart. I take that also to mean his wife.
    Something else I think about and that is Holy Communion is allowed for those using abortificants and refused to those remarried in a loving relationship using fertility awareness.

    It is as well that I am not the Pope ( I can hear the comments)

  17. claret says:

    St Joseph,
    I was not being judgemental but merely stating that the gospels themselves , that have to be read out as part of the liturgy of the Mass, often contain ‘hard terachings’ of which divorce is one. The Minister is obliged in his homily to preach on the scriptures of the day and in particlar to concentrate on the gospel. It would be negligent on his part to ‘skip the bits’ that might cause offence to certain individuals.
    In other words he will be aware of members of his congregation who have been divorced and even re-married contrary to the gospel. These persons may well be very chaste in how they live their lives in a worldly sense but it is contrary to the gospel and raises the spectre of the dangers of avoiding preaching about things that will cause offence.( we are all guilty of sin.)
    To preach on the contents of the Gospel is not speaking ‘out of the blue’ ( as you put it.)
    The whole question of divorce and re-marriage and the worthiness of receiving Holy Communion etc. is to some extent contradictory but we have to be careful of manouvering the plain words of scripture to make things seem fairer.

  18. st.joseph says:

    Claret I wasn’t thinking that you were judgemental-but thank you anyway.
    I was just commenting on things as I see them through my own experience.
    Not always right-as I said it is a well I am not the Pope or else I suppose I would not be on the Throne for long as I am inclined to let my emotions and sympathies run a way with me.
    I do feel so sorry or those who sometimes through love are not allowed to receive Our Lord-although they can Spiritually.
    I would probably give everyone Holy Communion.And I would be wrong to do that.

  19. st.joseph says:

    There is a very good article by Fr J Mcgovern Preaching Humanae Vitae, which I think would be wonderful for pre-marriage instruction It can be read on the web-site of It is also a very interesting web site.
    I believe it would be very fine instruction for young people if taught in schools and give them a really good education for marriage.
    Also for all those pessimists who dont understand HV.

    • Quentin says:

      Advocatus Diaboli writes

      I have read the sermon by a Fr.McGovern which you recommend. It’s a sorry, brainwashed piece of propaganda, isn’t it? But I expect he means well, he is brainwashed too. But perhaps you’re not, and youllbe happy to answer a couple of questions for me.
      I can understand, even agree, that marital relations which are potentially fertile are a bigger deal than those that deliberately aren’t. But I’d like to know why exactly you think that to use a contraceptive when that’s good for the marriage is so absolutely wicked. Apart fro anything else your so-called natural method seems to require a much greater and continual emphasis on not getting pregnant. I just don’t get it – so words of one syllable please.
      My second question is about conscience, here McGovern speaks with a forked tongue. Boil down what he says and it amounts to: your conscience is absolutely free, but at the same time your church will tell you what you must decide. Its simply a contradiction, and therefore nonsense. Tell me why I am wrong, please.

      • Rahner says:

        Advocatus Diaboli,Your dead right!

      • st.joseph says:

        Advocatus Diaboli

        Where were you when this was all discussed.
        If you want to know how I think take the time to look back on past posts!
        Then you can take any issues up with Fr McGovern, his e.mail is there.
        I will not waste time here on subjects I have already commented on!
        By the way if our concience tells us to be disobedient to the Church-we have a free will to do so!

      • tim says:

        It’s not a contradiction (though it may look like one). It’s a paradox – like ‘whose service is perfect freedom’. Language will probably allow it to be refined somewhat. You should believe what the Church tells you – and do it. But you are free not to. It is possible that you don’t perfectly understand all that the Church teaches, and find it partly contradictory. In such case your conscience (if properly formed) will guide you correctly as to which path to follow. If it’s not properly formed, it may not – but you’re stuck with it anyway. If you follow your conscience (I suppose) you may sin materially, but not formally (have I got that right?). I am not a theologian (obviously).

  20. Quentin says:

    Advocatus Diaboli replies
    You must forgive me, st,joseph, for I am only a guest on your blog, and I dont know about everything that appears. But i did ask Quentin about how many comments I would have to work my way through in order to find the information you quote. he tells me that there is the best part of 5000 comments on the blog. i dont really have time for that.

    I must apologise for assuming that, if you quoted someone approvingly you would be prepared to answer a guest’s questions.about it. So no doubt I deserved the fly swat you gave me.

  21. st.joseph says:

    Tim, when I spoke about conscience above Dec 15th 1.51. I was thinking of a couple who are not able to get an annulment through a of lack of evidence, and a committee decides against it, if they believe that their conscience tells them that their marriage is invalid-why should a committee make a decision against them. Then if they were to marry outside the Church, I would feel that they could receive Holy Communion .
    It is a situation which may never happen-but just an example. Just testing my brain!
    I was trying to express the seriousness of a couple being properly educated and I repeat the word ‘educated ‘in their vows they are about to make.
    I will mention -and I dont know when Our Lady said this-but She said it was wise for a couple to be of the same culture or faith when contemplating matrimony.
    That was the reason for mentioning Fr McGovern’s lecture.

    They say marriages are made in Heaven-but unfortunately many are not. So the breakdown can happen – one partner maturing in the faith more and the other losing it.
    As I said I was not a Marriage Guidance Counsellor-but have come across situations like that!
    Does that sound gobbly gook or not (One of my husbands expressions being a Yorkshire man)

  22. Nektarios says:

    st. joseph

    It was in the sixites when a certain politician (a Scot) introduced the Abortion Bill.
    Since then till now, in this country alone, over 9,000,000, that’s right OVER NINE MILLION
    would be babies have been aborted.
    What an indictment on Britian.

  23. st.joseph says:

    Yes that is true, and it is the pro-life workers who get all the ‘blame’!

  24. Nektarios says:

    st. joseph
    The pro-life group have received a lot of stick over the years, I have seen some of their material
    and some of their direct action here and abroad. As essentially a predominately Catholic group
    perhaps different tactics need to be employed than heretofore?
    With over 9 million abortions already and rising, one sees why the Government problems
    of population and immigration being so laxed.
    Multiculturalism raises its head these days again, but as I told the Government way back in the early 80s it would not and isn’t working.
    The reason for this influx of foreign nationals coming to the UK is because 9 million souls that would have been here, are not. Hence import them to fill the gap.
    Certain groups are very large and they are not interested in integration. It is just a matter of time
    before the critical mass of ethnic population changes, and all that that will mean for the UK.
    And this,st.joseph, all started when the numbers of abortions reached a certain point and they
    had destroyed a few generations of would be British citizens.
    This year, they plan to increase abortions to something like 348,000. It’s utter madness!

  25. st.joseph says:

    Thank you. I didn’t know that.
    Looking at it that way it is utter madness as well as sinfulness.
    I dont know what the answer is myself apart from prayer
    A group of people pray outside Marie Stopes Clinic, a distance away, no confrontation- sometimes a couple of priests and they still send for the police, every time.
    They are worried as a few cars turn around and go home when they see people praying the Rosary.

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