Bishops' New Worry: The Enneagram

By Thomson, Clarence | National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

Bishops' New Worry: The Enneagram


Thomson, Clarence, National Catholic Reporter


Personality system examined as threat to faithful in memorandom relying on one angry, old source

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 deja moo feeling came over me. (deja 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. …

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