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Bishops’ new worry: the enneagram


The U.S. bishops have received a memorandum from the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices about a new theological threat. This time it is not a person, nor even a doctrine. It is the enneagram.

Dominican Fr. Augustine DiNoia sent out a memorandum in July containing a draft report -- prepared at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- fretting about the suitability of using this personality typing system within a Christian context. Bishops should be concerned, DeNoia said, because the enneagram is popular and because it has its origins in a non-Christian worldview.

The enneagram, a Greek word meaning nine points, is a personality typology that describes in some detail nine personalities. It is a description of nine inner energies and motivations, a sort of map of our inner geography.

Each personality style has a central feature that is called either a passion or a sin, and what interests Catholics in particular is that seven of the nine enneagram passions or sins coincide exactly with the traditional capital sins named by the scholastic theologians (and the fathers of the church before them). Catholics know the capital seven as anger, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust and sloth. The enneagram adds two sins: fear and deceit. Everybody has some of each sin but one dominant one.

With this kind of religious juice, the enneagram creates a great deal of interest. The books and tape sets available number in the dozens, teachers in the hundreds and book sales in the millions. If the bishops decide to warn us, it will not be a warning of a coming crash. It will be more like asking us to get the license number of what ran over us.

The popularity of the enneagram must pose a problem for those who are concerned about its suitability as a tool for personal development. Sr. Suzanne Zuercher, a learned Benedictine, is teaching it for spiritual direction. So is Sr. Maria Beesing, a Dominican like Di Noia. Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, teaches it, along with countless Jesuits who often integrate it with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I have personally taught it to Catholic and Protestant clergy, in Catholic and Protestant seminaries. I’ve taught it to priests, sisters, deacons and laity around the country. Never have I heard a complaint that the enneagram posed any problem for their faith.

So if the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, clergy and thousands of pious laity have profited from this study, who is it that is worrying the bishops about the suitability? Why has this specter crept into the house of faith unnoticed by all of the above?

The bishops’ document contains the answer. The bishops are out of date.

The memorandum recalls an old (and embarrassing if caught) undergraduate technique for writing term papers. The ploy is to find one source, borrow freely, repeat the arguments, purloin the footnotes, claim them as your own and presto! You have a term paper, or in this case a memorandum.

As I read this memorandum, that old déjà moo feeling came over me. (déjà moo: I’ve heard this bull before). Something about this constellation of concerns was familiar. I was struck by the fact that all but one or two of the bishops’ sources were more than 15 years old. Veteran teachers notice flags like that. That’s especially alarming because most of the research and teaching of the enneagram has been done in the last 15 years, following the publication of the first book in 1984.

Then it hit me. The secretariat bases its memo to the bishops on a single source: Mitch Pacwa. About 15 or so years ago, Pacwa wrote an article for the Catholic Charismatic in which he ranted apocalyptically about the dangers of the enneagram.

The memo mirrors Pacwa’s concerns. It even contains the same footnotes. Congruence of concerns and footnotes this tight would get most undergraduates flunked in fine Catholic colleges (or even prep high schools).

Pacwa and the memo to bishops are concerned with links between two spiritual teachers with an affinity for esoteric ideas: George Gurdjieff (whom most enneagram teachers ignore because he never uses the term and certainly didn’t know the personalities) and Oscar Ichazo (who learned about the enneagram from somewhere and gives preposterous answers about where). The bishops’ doctrinal advisers also argue that the enneagram depends on numerology.

The concern about numerology is strange in a church that believes in a 40-year trip through the desert by the Israelites, a 40-day rain on Noah, a 40-day fast by Elias and then Jesus, and celebrates a 40-day Lent. If these aren’t symbolic numbers, we’ll have to throw away that imprimatured research monument, the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

Pacwa and the bishops’ memorandum ignore the writings, workshops, retreats and allied experiences of enneagram teachers for the last 15 years. They don’t mention contemporary enneagram experts such as Jerome Wagner, Thomas Condon, Don Riso, Russ Hudson, Suzanne Zuercher, Anne Linden, Theodorre Donson, Kathy Hurley, Rosaleen O’Sullivan, James Empereur or Margaret Keyes, all of whom are professionally trained in psychology or theology or both.

When critics such as Pacwa say the enneagram lacks a scientific foundation, perhaps it is because they haven’t looked at any of the social science sources. They don’t quote any people schooled in human personality sciences.

When hundreds of teachers, thousands of students and millions of readers use the enneagram with spiritual profit, why would you devote your whole morandum to the ideas of one man? That is terrible science and worse ecclesiology.

The bishops begin on Page One by saying that the non-Christian origins of the enneagram do not “preclude the possibility that Christians might find in it truths that can be appropriated within a Christian worldview.” Then they spend 13 pages repeating Pacwa’s documentation of origins they have asserted aren’t all that important.

I can’t resist pointing out that St. Thomas Aquinas was condemned for these same concerns. He used that pagan Aristotle. So I suppose you could say the bishops would have precedent for this.

When the memorandum explains the enneagram, it is seriously wrong and wrong in precisely the areas Pacwa is wrong. It asserts unsubstantiated claims of when an enneagram style develops and refers to discarded theories. It says that enneagram teachers explain why people tend to act in particular ways. But good teachers emphasize that an enneagram style deals with motivation, not behavior.

The memo says that teachers can prescribe goals for adjustment and development. However, the enneagram is a personality typology, a diagnostic tool. Many teachers offer suggestions for development. I do. But we don’t get them from the enneagram. We get them from other sources like scripture, our tradition and contemporary psychology.

It looks as though the bishops are getting all their information from one angry man whose research is 15 years old. The memo ignores the experience, work and opinions of Catholic and other Christian authors, clergy and laity. It warns against a system it does not understand on grounds it admits up front are not valid.

Faced with this kind of intellectual breadth, ecclesial consultation and academic rigor, one can understand the terror of our Catholic university teachers at the thought of episcopal oversight.

The enneagram in brief

The enneagram is a system for self-understanding and for understanding the motivations and behavior of others. The following are brief descriptions of the nine personality styles of the enneagram. Labels for each of the types (in parentheses) are taken from The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele (Harper San Francisco, 1994).

Type One
(The Perfectionist) is preoccupied with a set of standards or rules agains which this type measures himself or herself and the world. The One’s dominant sin is anger.

Type Two
(The Helper) seeks to gain love and approval by giving to others. The Two’s dominant sin is pride.

Type Three
(The Achiever) seeks to be successful in the world’s eyes. The Three’s dominant sin is deceit.

Type Four
(The Romantic) wishes to be seen as unique, and lives in imagination and feelings. The Four’s dominant sin is envy.

Type Five
(The Observer) seeks to avoid intrusions upon his or her privacy and to collect knowledge. The Five’s dominant sin is avarice.

Type Six
(The Questioner) views the world as a dangerous place and seeks to keep safe from that danger. The Six’s dominant sin is fear.

Type Seven
(The Adventurer) seeks to avoid pain by pursuing new experiences and future possibilities. The Seven’s dominant sin is gluttony.

Type Eight
(The Asserter) desires to feel powerful and dominate the environment. The Eight’s dominant sin is lust.

Type Nine
(The Peacemaker) seeks harmony, peace and union with others. The Nine’s dominant sin is sloth.

The draft of “A Brief Report on the Origins of the Enneagram” from the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices can be found on NCR’s Web site at http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

Clarence Thomson has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of several enneagram books. His work on the enneagram can be seen on the Internet at http://www.enneagramcentral.com.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000