The Enneagram and Catholic Spirituality

The Enneagram is claimed to have origins in the Sufi religion. However the Sufis, who are a mystical offshoot of Islam, did not develop it as it is known today. It was developed by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian occultist who lived in Russia from 1877 to 1947. The system was promoted by his student Piotr Ouspensky, and later by Oscar Ichazo from Chile who, in the 1960s, introduced it to the West.

It is helpful nonetheless to understand something of Sufi teaching because it does underpin the approach of the Enneagram. Sufis believe in the notion of the “Design”. This “Design” is what they consider to be God’s plan for mankind: the direction God wishes human development to take. Sufi masters claim to have access to this secret design. As Catholics we would define the Sufis as Gnostics in the sense that they believe in esoteric knowledge. They believe the “Design” is hidden underneath outward appearances which they consider to be false reality.

The Enneagram is a system of assigning a number from 1 to 9 to human personalities. Each person is assisted in identifying their particular number. This number is said to reveal the hidden motivation for everything a person does. The Enneagram is supposed to enable a person to gain knowledge of his true self, exposing the true motivations for their actions. It also help a person discover the illusions under which a person may operate. Simply put it helps a person deal with the world. The Enneagram symbol itself is a nine-sided figure.

In 2000, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared a draft statement, “A Brief Report on the Origins of the Enneagram,” cautioning against its use. The document has not been published. In 2003, the Vatican released a document entitlted “Jesus Christ, Bearer of the Water of Life” which was a discussion on the dangers of New Age spirituality. It mentioned the Enneagram in its glossary. In 2004, the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine released “Report on the Use of the Enneagram: Can It Serve as a True Instrument of Christian Spiritual Growth?” for the conference’s internal use.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami wrote an online column titled,“New Age is Old Gnosticism” (February 10, 2011). There he described the Enneagram is a“pseudo-psychological exercise supposedly based on Eastern mysticism, [which] introduces ambiguity into the doctrine and life of the Christian faith and therefore cannot be happily used to promote growth in an authentic Christian spirituality.”

Some of the issues he raises includes the way that the Enneagram redefines sin by simply associating faults with personality types. It encourages, he says, an unhealthy self-absorption about one’s own “type,” so that the type is at fault rather than the person. This gives rise to a deterministic mindset at odds with Christian freedom.

Archbishop Wenski describes the Enneagram as fundamentally Gnostic, a form of numerology and divination of the type that the Lord forbids among the Israelites (Deuteronomy 18:10-14). Unlike many personality tests, the Enneagram claims a profound, transcendent meaning, as well as a scientific one. This claim is challenged, especially when its links with Sufi spirituality are marginal.

Fr Mitch Pacwa’s 1992 book “Catholics and the New Age” is one of the best treatments on the subject. Fr Pacwa discusses his own involvement with the Enneagram, because as a spiritual director he once proposed and taught it. The more he researched it, however, the more disillusioned he became. He decided the Enneagram was a dangerous fraud. “Fitting someone into one mold or another seemed like fun,” he wrote. “…however, after incorrectly typing some friends, I eventually dropped the Enneagram from my repertoire of spiritual direction tools.”

While there are real issues of conflict with Christian teaching, there is also the question of the accuracy of enneagram teaching from the perspective of modern science. The Enneagram shares little with the methods and criteria of modern science.

The American Bishops state in their document: “An examination of the origins of enneagram teaching reveals that it does not have credibility as an instrument of scientific psychology and that the philosophical and religious ideas of its creators are out of keeping with basic elements of Christian faith on several points. Consequently, the attempt to adapt the enneagram to Christianity as a tool for personal spiritual development shows little promise of providing substantial benefit to the Christian community”.

Catholics using the Enneagram talk about things like saints and sin and faith and “fruits of the spirit” but they have very different meanings from those commonly accepted by the Catholic tradition. For example, the word “saint” is used in the Sufi religion: a Sufi “saint” (“wali”) is a person who is illuminated. Thus, a “saint” is a person who overcomes his false self and knows and acts according to his true self. It has nothing to do with holiness and relationship with God.

The “fruits of the spirit” is also used in “Catholic” presentations of the Enneagram. These have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. In the Enneagram, the fruits of the spirit are good inclinations a person gets according to his number in the Enneagram. Prayer is talked about as part of the Enneagram, but their definition of prayer has nothing to do with God: prayer is absorbing elements from the environment into oneself, or projecting oneself into the environment, or delving into Nothingness.

Taking words from the Catholic tradition and changing their meanings can give things the outward appearance of being Catholic and Catholics can be lulled into the belief that it is consistent with the Catholic faith. It is in this area that the Enneagram is particularly dangerous. It can easily become a path that leads to a loss of faith.