Temperaments, Astrology, and the Enneagram

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 13
The (occult) Enneagram

On Monday, fellow blogger and friend Leila Miller alerted me to this old post at the Women of Grace blog warning against temperament theory. I thought the writer raised enough points that a blog response was in order, even though it’s years late. Some readers have expressed similar skepticism about my promotion of the four classic temperaments.

Let me start by saying I greatly respect the author Susan Brinkmann and have read her material for years. She kindly gave my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? a positive review a few months ago. She is a warrior against the New Age. However, as I have delved more deeply into the teaches of Centering Prayer, yoga, and other New Age practices, I have found that Brinkmann sometimes goes too far in her criticisms. I think she sometimes misunderstands what the central problems of these practices are for Catholics. Her work seems too greatly influenced by Fundamentalist Protestant sources. This makes it easy to dismiss her critiques wholesale.

Brinkmann raises several points. I will deal separately with her take on The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), astrology, and the Enneagram. In each section I will contrast these  “personality assessments,” as she calls them, with classic temperament theory.

The Mbti

In response to a reader’s question, Brinkmann writes:

“In a nutshell, beware of all types of personality and temperament assessment tests. I say this for practical reasons. This multi-million dollar industry is largely unregulated with many of these tests being administered by poorly trained and sometimes completely unqualified personnel.”
She notes that the creator of the MBTI was “a Pennsylvania housewife who thought it could bring about world peace.” Ironically, Brinkmann herself relies almost exclusively on a book written, not by a psychologist or theologian, but a journalist. (She does include one positive review of the book/rejection of the MBTI from a psychiatrist.)
The questioner specifically mentioned The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett. Art Bennett is a psychologist and a faithful Catholic, and has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I think we can assume he is qualified and well trained to speak on this subject.
Still, the question of whether personality tests are used wrongly is different from whether the tests themselves are valid.
Another major problem with Brinkmann’s article is that she lumps all personality and temperament theories together, along with astrology. But the MBTI differs from classical temperament theory in several important ways, including:
  • the theory of four temperaments originated with Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, certainly an expert in his day.
  • the temperament distinctions lie in innate reaction patterns, not more nebulous behaviors.
  • temperament is only one part of personality, supplemented by environment and the choices we make.
  • saints and theologians throughout the ages, including St. Thomas Aquinas, have upheld temperament theory.
  • temperament theory is not a fad.
  • classic temperaments tests do not diagnose anything and do not require “expert” administration.

The problems with the MBTI cannot thus be attributed to temperament theory en masse.

Researching the MBTI, I found that it has fallen out of favor by many psychologists and psychiatrists. Still, there is some scientific evidence to back up its claims. A twins study found that identical twins raised apart scored similarly on the  MBTI.  Also, brain scans show that people of different types use their brains differently. This is a long video on the subject, which I have yet to watch.
In any case, the types do not exactly map to the temperaments. Online you will find many conflicting posts trying to correlate the two systems.


Critics of temperament theory sometimes equate it with astrology. This happened in my recent discussion on Leila’s blog Little Catholic Bubble. (If you’ve never visited the Bubble, the comments are where the action is!) Another reader contended that the choleric temperament was just a rehash of the astrological sign Leo.

I purposely have not studied much about the Signs of the Zodiac, because I don’t want to give the Devil a foothold. But I did look up the attributes of Leo, and found that there are a few similarities with the choleric temperament, but also many differences. Contrary to what my opponent said, the two are not anywhere near equivalent.

Brinkmann writes:

“Mankind has long flirted with the idea of the four humors or temperaments (Sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic) which are connected with astrology. While this might make for interesting reading, we must be careful not to let this information be used for spiritual direction.”
She provides no sources for any of this. No one can deny that astrologists often incorporate Hippocrates’ teaching into their “art” to some extent. Hippocrates also believed and taught astrology. But that is no argument against temperament theory itself, which is not rooted in Greek religion. Hippocrates believed that different temperaments had their roots in bodily fluids being out of balance. That’s why the names for the four temperaments are so strange (sanguine = blood, for example). In other words, Hippocrates based his teaching on primitive science. Of course, science was only beginning to emerge as a separate discipline from magic, a process that took centuries.
The most important difference between astrology and temperament theory is that temperament is determined by biology, not the movement of the stars. We can and should strive to overcome the weaknesses of our temperaments. We cannot say, “I can’t help myself, that’s just my temperament.” Our nature is wounded by sin. Each of us is wounded in temperament. But God can heal us.
This is clear in the lives of numerous saints. Looking at saints’ personalities and struggles early in their journey, I can usually pinpoint their temperament. But after their second conversion (to the illuminative way), their temperament is not as apparent, because infused virtue has helped them overcome many of their natural weaknesses.
Temperament does not determine one’s destiny. Free will and grace do. But temperament makes various choices harder or easier for particular people.
A final problem with Brinkmann’s statement on the temperaments is that the most respected spiritual theologians of modern times have urged spiritual directors to work with their directees’ temperaments. For example, Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, writes:
“But grace does not destroy or replace nature; it works through and perfects nature. Consequently the body-soul composite of the individual person can be a help or hindrance to the operations of the virtues infused with sanctifying grace. It is therefore necessary, especially for spiritual directors, to understand the ways in which the psychosomatic structure can affect the work of sanctification.” (Spiritual Theology, Part 2, Chapter 7)
He then goes on to write several pages about the four temperaments and their typical vices and virtues.

The Enneagram

The only place where Brinkmann quotes Catholic sources is when criticizing the Enneagram. As she notes, Jesus Christ: the Bearer of the Water of Life mentions this New Age tool. Bearer of the Water of Life is a document on the New Age written by two pontifical councils. I quote it extensively in Is Centering Prayer Catholic? I completely agree with Brinkmann’s criticism of the Enneagram.
But the Enneagram has only surface similarities to temperament theory. The Enneagram comes from the Sufi religion, where it bears little resemblance to the New Age tool taught at various Catholic parishes in the West today.  The Enneagram subverts the meaning of central doctrines of the faith. It has no basis in science. Users are advised to act in certain ways to counteract their supposed Enneagram number (1 through 9).
Promoters of Centering Prayer, including Fr. William Meninger and Fr. Richard Rohr, also use and promote the Enneagram.

From an article in The Catholic World Report, we learn:

“The Enneagram redefines sin, among other fundamental concepts, by simply associating faults with personality types, which is particularly tempting in a cultural climate of irresponsibility and narcissism. It encourages 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.”
The Enneagram teaches a dualistic idea of God and demons. It holds that every one of the nine types is disordered, compelling people to behave in a certain way. Everyone supposedly fits into one and only one type. Its origins lie not in psychology, science, or medicine, but fortune-telling.
Again, temperament theory is not deterministic. It does not redefine the meaning of the faith. It is simply a tool for understanding one’s behavior patterns.

Concluding thoughts

Brinkmann ends her post:

“This is not to suggest by any means that personality and temperament tests are all occult-based, but this field is definitely popular with New Agers who thrive on self-realization. If only as much time was spent meditating on the attributes of God rather than on ourselves!

“A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the best way to pursue the kind of self-knowledge that will get you into heaven. That, coupled with 30 minutes a day of mental prayer (start with 10 minutes and work your way up) is the best way to discover one’s weaknesses and attachments to sin – not through personality or temperament tests.”

I am not the one to argue against the importance of mental prayer! Nor that the best way to understand oneself is to pursue intimacy with God. But self-knowledge does include being aware of one’s root sins and bad habits. The Daily Examen, or other practices of examining one’s conscience, could also put too much focus on oneself, if taken out of context or used to the extreme.

We don’t learn our temperament as a substitute or excuse for not pursuing holiness. Instead, we use it to understand ourselves better so that we can tackle the tendencies that are keeping us away from intimacy with Christ.

In the last two years since I have come to understand my temperament, I have zeroed in on my main fault and the ways it is keeping me from glorifying God in my vocation. And with the help of my spiritual director, I am working to overcome this sin. I am more patient with my temperamental weaknesses and those of others. I know some things will not be completely healed by my hard work, but only by the infused work of God in contemplation. But I am determined to do what I can with ordinary grace to prepare my soul for that deeper work of God.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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13 Responses

  1. Michelle

    As a person who “gave consent” in my youth to things of the occult and especially horoscopes, and subsequently losing a good part of normal life and especially thought life, I have chosen to avoid these.

    So, for the same reason that I cannot drink wine (adult child of an alcoholic), I cannot use these tools either, even though for some, they are very good.

    Does that make sense?

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Michelle. If delving into temperaments tempts you to turn back towards astrology, certainly you should avoid it. It’s not essential and not worth the temptation toward mortal sin. However, temperaments are not astrology and don’t offer the same problems as astrology for people who haven’t had a problem with it in the past. It’s somewhat different than your alcohol analogy, because the wine is the very thing that is problematic to an alcoholic, whereas the temperaments are only similar in some superficial ways to astrology. It’s more like feeling tempted by drinking carbonated grape juice.

      • Michelle

        Gee, are melancholics impulsive? Lol, I may not have been informed enough to have commented, but I want to clarify. Hopefully, I won’t make things worse. I do not want to disparage your writing, which is always good and true.

        I remember when I tried to get my very Christian friend to listen to John Michael Talbot (clearly good) and she said that since she almost lost her soul in the New Age movement, and had listened to that while deeply involved in it, she had to decline. I didn’t fully understand at the time. It’s an association thing, and anyone who has experience in the horror of the occult will understand more fully.

        I do think you are right about the fundamentalist aspect too because very often fundamentalists feel that wine is also evil. But again for me, by association, it is.

        I’m actually disappointed since I think a better understanding of my children would be a good thing.

        God bless.

        • Connie Rossini

          No worries, Michell. I don’t expect everyone to find the same tools useful as i do. It only bothers me when people say that those tools are somehow bad or generally useless, rather than of little value to themselves. I get what you are saying.

  2. Sharon

    This is a very interesting article, and reminds me of something I have run into regarding my temperament and New Age thought. I am phglegmatic, and I think it was in Art and Laraine Benntet’s book that I read a recommendation that phlegmatics can benefit from motivational programs, self-help kinds of books if I understood the authors correctly. I recently came across a book that I think contains some excellent advice to help me overcome being too laid back, or to put it more bluntly, lazy. When I put things off, take it easy, just “don’t feel like” doing something, I know I am wasting the time God has given me and accomplishing less than I should. I expect to have to answer at the end of my life for the hours I have frittered away, the things I could have accomplished but didn’t because tomorrow is such a convenient time to do everything – or nothing.

    But the book, though it had excellent advice, keeps referring to the Law of Attraction. I am finding that many motivational books do the same. I decided to check Women of Grace for more information on the Law of Attraction since WOG does have a lot of good information on the New Age. What I read was shocking, in that, after learning of the origins of the Law of Attraction, I wonder how any serious-thinking person could see it as anything but nuts.

    I’ve kept reading the self-help book though, because so often I read the advice and what I think is, “This relates to my daily duty.” Or, “This correct use of my time is what some of the saints remind us to do.” Or even, “This reminds me of the ‘eternal now’.” I’ve just been crossing out any references to the Law of Attraction, and I have written a review on Amazon warning people of the origin of that philosophy. I”d be interested to know your thoughts on that, Connie, whether you think it is best to completely avoid such books, and especially whether you know of good motivational books written by solid Catholics.

    • Sharon

      I wanted to add that the Law of Attraction is not only “nuts”. It’s dangerous and clearly has diabolical origins. Didn’t want to sound as though I hadn’t recognized the seriousness of the errors of the Law of Attraction!

    • Connie Rossini

      Good question, Sharon! In secular books, you are almost always going to come across something that does not fit with the Catholic faith. Sometimes I have read helpful books that use contraception in their examples, for example. I think that if this is not the main thrust of the book and you are otherwise gaining lots of good and useful information, it’s okay to read those things. Of course, if you feel tempted to start following the “Law of Attraction,” you should put the book down and maybe even throw it away. I’m not very familiar with the Law of Attraction myself. I’m not very familiar with Catholic self-help books, either, except in my own field. Gary Zimak’s books are helpful for those who are anxious. Matthew Kelly might have some good material. Protestant books like The Purpose-Driven Life have helped lots of Catholics, but you also have to be aware of non-Catholic views in them. I’ve looked for good books for Catholic teens and mostly come up empty. But I’ll keep my eyes open and maybe even consider this as a future project for myself. (Like I need another one!)

    • Connie Rossini

      Oh, another author you might try is Randy Hain. He writes for Catholic businessmen, but he may have something helpful for Catholics in general. I also find that a lot of what is published as spirituality by Catholic publishers is really Catholic self-help, but I can’t vouch for how helpful they are.

  3. Bice Comichista

    Well argued Colleen. The Four Temperaments are a useful tool. I like especially the part where you mentioned root sin and how finding out your temperment helped you in this area.

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