Pastoral Counseling and ‘Broken Gods’: Author Q&A with Gregory Popcak

Gregory Popcak (Image)

Gregory Popcak is an American Catholic author, psychotherapist and teacher. The director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an internationally-recognized, Catholic counseling practice,  he is also an adjunct professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the author of more than 20 popular books and programs in Catholic pastoral counseling. He has degrees in psychology and theology, a master's degree in clinical social work, and a Ph.D. in human services.

Dr. Popcak is the host of More2Life Radio and author of the blog Faith on the Couch at at Patheos.com. He is a regular guest on both Catholic and secular media programs and his work has been featured in the LA Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, US News and World Report, NPR's Here & Now, OSV Newsweekly, and other media outlets.

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His newest book, “Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart,” is due from Image on June 2. On April 7, I interviewed him about his writing and new book.

What inspired this new book?

Christians often talk about how we're "broken" and how we need to be saved but that doesn't resonate with a lot of people—largely because most people completely misunderstand what these ideas represent. They think Christians mean that people are terrible, horrible, no‐good, very bad creatures and that God wants us to sit around all day in our awfulness feeling awful about ourselves. But that's not it at all!  Human beings are wonderful creatures! God, himself, pronounced us, "very good" (Gen 1:30) at the beginning of time. 

And yet, as good as we are, we were made for so much more. Jesus, himself, reminds us that we were made to be gods (Jn 10:34)perfect, immortal, utterly confident in who we were, where we were going, and how we were going to get there. Our First Parent's sin ripped all of that away from us and we became, in a sense, broken gods—separated, lost in the cosmos, alone, naked and ashamed. But God never gave up on his original plan for us and he continues to work through all time and space to complete in us a work so wonderful we can't even begin to imagine it. He intends to restore the divine light within us and make us the gods we were always meant to be.

Who are you writing for?

This book is for people who experience an ache in their hearts that tells them that they were made for "more" but struggle to know what that longing really means much less how they can begin to satisfy it. My hope is that readers will discover the joy of knowing that all the people in their lives who told them that they should sit down, be quiet, and stop dreaming are wrong. In fact, our biggest dreams cannot begin compare to the shocking, even scandalous abundance God imagines for us. I would like Broken Gods to reawaken readers' spiritual imaginations so they can begin to see and experience the amazing transformation God intends to bring to pass in their hearts and in their lives.

Where did you get the phrase “broken gods” for your title?

It is a play on the concept that theologians refer to as "divinization" or "theosis," which is the idea that although we are broken by sin, we are meant, through God's grace, to become "partakers in divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).  Although the doctrine of divinization is largely lost to the modern Christian, theologians remind us that it is absolutely central to understanding what it really means to be a Christian. So many faithful people think that being Christian means trying to be good, a person can be merely good without God. Christianity challenges us to be more than good. It challenges us to allow God to enable us to be godly. Even that phrase, "being godly" is telling. It means, in the words of Martin Luther, being totally and completely "godded-through" by grace. We are destined to be more than merely "good." As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." THAT is the destiny to which each of us is called and what a destiny it is!

In Broken Gods I show that, in this life, through divinization, God intends to fulfill the seven longings of every heart so that each person can experience the kind of deep and abiding joy Pope Francis describes in The Joy of the Gospel. Of course, in the next life, this path of joyful abundance leads to total union with God. Broken Gods reveals that it is only by developing the kind of relationship with God that allows him to transform our deepest and even darkest desires into the engines of our ultimate perfection that we can hope to achieve the destiny for which we were created; to be gods who can live with God and be loved by God for all eternity.

What do you mean by the phrase “hope and healing” in your subtitle?

I think the modern world is experiencing a crisis of hope that is rooted in a tortured and confused relationship with desire. We desire so many things. Of course, most of our desires conflict with each other and many of them lead us down destructive paths. As a result, Christians lose hope that our desires can mean anything good in our lives. We come to see desire as the enemy and, as a result, our relationship with desire becomes polarized. That is, we tend to either see our desires as "the enemy we must surrender to and become consumed by" or "the enemy we must fight so hard against that we become the grim sourpusses that Pope Francis decries," so consumed by the struggle that we forget that the life of faith is meant to be one of transformation and joy.

Broken Gods reveals a third, graceful path between these two tragic errors; a path that enables us to discover the true purpose of desire; namely to reveal the seven divine longings of the human heart and the destiny to which those longings ultimately point.

What are the “seven longings” also mentioned in this subtitle?

Hidden behind our deepest and even darkest desires are seven basic, human longings; namely, the ache for abundance, dignity, justice, peace, trust, well‐being, and authentic love. Everything we do—especially the stupid, offensive, and destructive things—represents our feeble attempts to satisfy one or several of these unconscious longings.

When we act in ways that disappoint or hurt ourselves and others, we tend to become consumed with guilt, anger, self‐criticism and sometimes hopelessness that things can ever get any better for us. God wishes to deliver us from this pain. He longs to show us, step‐by‐step, how to authentically satisfy these deepest longings woven into the fabric of our soul. When we let God teach us how to meet these longings according to his plan, he not only frees us from fear and want and leads us to abundance in this life, he ultimately transforms us into gods who, through his grace, can achieve perfection, immortality, and ultimate love in the next.

What is pastoral counseling and why do people do it?

We all need some help at various points in our lives and people deserve to receive help that harmonizes with their spiritual journey. According to survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, about 30 percent of Catholics—almost 26 million potential consumers of mental health services—would prefer to receive psychological help, when they need it, from professional who is both a competent, licensed, clinician and who also knows how to help them  apply their Catholic faith to the challenges of everyday life. Pastoral counselors are licensed mental health professionals who have additional training in pastoral theology that enables them to help clients live their faith in authentic and healthy ways in the face of emotional and relational challenges.

Unfortunately, many—even most—Catholics struggle to find this competent, faithful help. One survey found that, when compared to Protestant Christians, Catholics are significantly less hopeful that they will be able to find competent, faith-friendly mental health services offered either in the community or by the church. In my counseling practice, I often hear from Catholics who felt their previous counselors were demeaning to their attempts to live their faith.  Sadly, a lot of the times, these same clients encountered this hostility at the hands of counselors employed by church-sponsored counseling agencies which often provide secular, but not always pastoral, counseling services.

How is pastoral counseling different from secular therapy?

There are several differences, but at its core, secular counseling suffers from a lack of what St. John Paul II called an "adequate anthropology." That is, it lacks a coherent vision of what a human person is meant to be, how we discover our ultimate destiny, and what the relationship between each individual and the communion of persons is supposed to look like.

For instance, in the Catholic view, we become our beset selves by making an authentic gift of ourselves to each other (Gaudium et Spes, #24). Catholicism teaches that we were created for loving, mutually self-giving relationships and the more we try to live meaningful, intimate, and virtuous lives, the closer our lives reflect God's idea of what a healthy, whole person looks like and what healthy, whole relationships are meant to be.

Secular counselors don't usually have such a clear vision—or at least they're not so transparent about what their vision might be. At least superficially, they have to be more agnostic about what each of us is meant to be and what our relationships are supposed to look like. After all, without the benefit of revelation, who's to say which personal, relational, or spiritual ideals are worth striving for? Granted, in secular counseling, you're more or less free to choose your own ideals, but who's to say that you're choosing well? And what if your personal vision of a life-well-lived contradicts, say, your spouse's personal vision? The best you can hope for in that case is a marriage based on mutual tolerance, not the actual harmony that comes from singing from the same sheet of music.

Bottom line, a good pastoral counselor is familiar with all the techniques used by his or her secular colleagues, but in addition, the pastoral counselor honors the values and worldview of a particular faith tradition. Just as importantly, the pastoral counselor works to help the client live out that vision in healthy and authentic ways that respect the client's life and faith journey.

What’s distinctive about your approach as a Catholic to pastoral counseling?

Two things. First, the nature of our practice. Each year, through the Pastoral Solutions Institute (www.CatholicCounselors.com), my associates and I provide over 10,000 hours of ongoing, pastoral psychotherapy services via the telephone to Catholic individuals and couples all over the world. Although most of our clients come from North America, our census regularly includes clients from Australia, the UK, South Africa and Asia as well. The international reach of our practice gives us a genuinely unique perspective on the lived experience of the faithful. It's exciting and inspiring to see the different ways people's Catholicism impacts their lives.

Secondly, we strive to offer a truly integrative approach to pastoral counseling, blending the wisdom of our Catholic spiritual traditions with empirically-based approaches to psychotherapy. For instance, we have pioneered an approach we call Ignatian Cognitive Therapy, which blends St. Ignatius' rules regarding spiritual discernment with traditional cognitive therapy techniques. Likewise, our marital counseling work blends approaches developed by the Gottman Relationship Institute—which is really the gold standard with regard to relationship therapy—with St. Therese of Lisieux's idea of the "little way" of holiness. We try to help clients not only improve their marriages but also discover the different ways each little moment in marriage teaches couples how to become everything God created them to be in this life and helps them be each other's best hope for arriving, properly attired, at the eternal wedding feast in the next.  

We would like to think that we are leaders in the renewed effort to develop truly integrative, Catholic-friendly approaches to counseling practice.  I'm honored, for instance, to serve on the Education Committee of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.

How has your Catholic faith evolved or changed during the course of your career?

Growing up in the Charismatic Renewal movement in the church, I have been blessed to have a deeply personal/emotional relationship with God for almost as long as I remember. When I was 8, my mom ran the children's ministry at our charismatic prayer group and led me and my friends through a version of the Life in the Spirit seminar she had adapted for kids.  At the time, I had a very powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit that gave me a really personal experience of the sacraments coming up. 

Over the years, God has led me to add a more thoughtful dimension to my faith; to ask hard questions about why we believe what we do as Catholic Christians and how those beliefs square with the experience of being human. It can sometimes a little intimidating to tour the ecclesial sausage factory that produces the central tenets of our faith, for example, but I've found it exciting and even inspiring to see how the Holy Spirit isn't afraid to get his hands dirty by becoming so intimately involved in the human process of debating, discussing, and even politicking. 

These days, of course, I am constantly being challenged by the call to be authentically pastoral—not just professionally but personally as well. Cardinal Kasper reminded the church of this challenge during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, but for me, Pope Benedict's reflections in Caritas in Veritate provides a truly robust pastoral vision. I'm constantly being led to reflect on how to find the compassionate road between mere sentimentalism—that values emotion but ignores truth—and a rigorism that attempts to apply doctrine in a manner that disregards experience. You can't be pastoral by throwing either love or truth under the bus. It's a never-ending challenge to hit that sweet spot though. It requires a real humility and a willingness to listen better and pray even harder. I'll probably be working on this for the rest of my life.

Who are the biggest influences on your work?

            There's no question that St John Paul II's Theology of the Body serves as the foundation for all the work I do. Interestingly, I have found remarkable harmony between the vision of the person communicated by the Theology of the Body and the positions taken by both John Bowlby's work in Attachment Theory and Daniel Siegel's work in Interpersonal Neurobiology, which is the study of how relationships (both parent-child relationships and adult pair bonding) impact the functioning of the mind and the brain. In fact, I reference Siegel's work fairly heavily in Broken Gods.

What’s your next project?

I have several projects coming out in anticipation of the 2015 World Meeting of Families, which my wife, Lisa, and I are honored to be presenting at.  She and I have a new, revised and expanded, anniversary edition of our first book, For Better...FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage (Our Sunday Visitor) coming out, and my wife and I are putting the finishing touches on a manuscript for a book tentatively called Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids (Sophia Institute Press), which takes advantage of the brand new research on what it takes to effectively communicate the faith to kids as well as allows us to share some of the experiences we've had in raising our own passionately faithful, young adult children.

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

Wow. That's tough. The first one that comes to mind is John 15:15, "I call you friends."  To me it speaks to the kind of intimate, honest, authentic relationship God wants with each of us.  My wife and I chose that passage as the Gospel for our wedding.  It is a constant reminder to us that our marital friendship had to be rooted first in our friendship with God and it presents an ongoing challenge to both of us to cultivate that kind of raw, real friendship that doesn't keep God or each other at arm's length in any part of our lives.

A close second would be Philippians 4:19, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." My professional life, especially, has followed some pretty unconventional paths. I need to remind myself every day that just because my path is unique, it isn't crazy that God has asked me to walk it.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

That God loves us truly, madly, and deeply and that it is his plan to help us discover, enlighten, and ultimately satisfy all the desires of our heart. That God is the ultimate ground of all of our desires and that we don't have to be afraid to bring our deepest and even our darkest desires to him.  God isn't easily scandalized.  He wants even the crustiest, most broken, undesirable parts of ourselves and when we give everything to him, we have only to stand back and be amazed at the miracles he will create in us and through us.

What are your hopes for the future?

I guess my biggest hope is that my work would help people—inside and outside the Church—discover that the Catholic faith isn't just a series of rules and restrictions, but a positive path that leads to true fulfillment of every desire of the human heart.

Professionally, my dream would be to play a more central role in helping the Church communicate her vision of both love and the human person to the world.  Catholics have something special to offer the world and very few people know it—not even among the faithful!  I want to help people discover the real joy and freedom that comes from living the Catholic difference in their lives and relationships. 

Oh, and a couple days off once in awhile would be nice too! Can I do all of the above and get a little more vacation time?  I'd like that.

Any final thoughts?

I hope that people will experience Broken Gods as more than just another self-help book. That, rather, they'll find that it reveals how God wants to satisfy every longing of our hearts in ways that both lead to total fulfillment in this life and ultimate fulfillment in the next. I hope that in Broken Gods, readers will find a treasure map that leads to hope for weary hearts, joy for troubled times, and strength to live every part of their lives more abundantly.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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