As cases of corruption and duplicity among senior Catholic clergy once again cause shock and dismay among the faithful, what can we do to avoid being taken in by charismatic, influential wolves in sheep’s clothing?

We each tend to assume that other people are fundamentally like us. When a purportedly holy shepherd is accused of terrible crimes, we tend to put ourselves in their shoes and think “if I was guilty I’d die of humiliation and never show my face again”.

So when the accused instead comes out fighting, takes the moral high-ground, or doubles-down on the rhetoric of persecution and suffering, of course we want to believe them, because who could be so audacious and amoral as to persist in such lies when their own conscience accuses them?

But the truth is that we are not all the same, and understanding our basic differences in temperament is the best defence against having the wool pulled over our eyes.

Four Temperaments in the Church

The Catholic Church reputedly used to rely on the Four Temperaments theory as a proto-scientific approach to temperament and formation in seminaries and religious orders, just as seminaries now use contemporary psychological assessment to screen vocations.

Until the mid-20th Century, the Four Temperaments continued to inform scientific research into psychological traits, temperament, and its biological underpinning.

The Four Temperaments theory still holds value as an everyday classification system that also overlaps with more rigorous empirical models like the Big Five personality traits.

What it lacks in refinement and rigour the Four Temperaments theory makes up for in practicality, giving ordinary people the heuristic tools to make quick and efficacious assessments of temperament.

Good and bad cholerics

One of the best Catholic resources on temperament was written by the German Catholic priest Konrad Hock (1868-1935), informed by his experience as “spiritual” to an order of German nuns. 

Adapted and translated into English by the Pallotine Fathers of Milwaukee, Hock’s text includes robust descriptions of the Choleric, Sanguine, and Melancholic temperaments, along with advice for the spiritual development and training of these temperaments in a religious context.

In his text, Hock describes Cholerics as natural leaders: proud, ambitious and indefatigable in overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals.

In the service of a good cause Cholerics can do remarkable things for the benefit of all. But a bad Choleric is essentially a dictator or tyrant, bent on using others for purely selfish ends.

The ability to identify Cholerics – the good, the bad, and everything in between – is one of the greatest gifts of the Four Temperaments system, because in lieu of such understanding we all tend to rely on the false premise that other people think, feel, and see the world the same way we do.

For a Melancholic, this means assuming that everyone is motivated by deep ideals and the desire for meaning. Melancholics struggle when they meet “idealistic” Cholerics who may subscribe to the same ideals in a general sense, but are in fact motivated by greatness and ambition. Hock writes that the Choleric:

“is not satisfied with the ordinary, but aspires after great and lofty things. He craves for great success in temporal affairs; he seeks large fortunes, a vast business, an elegant home, a distinguished reputation or a predominant position. He aspires to the highest also in matters spiritual; he is swayed with a consuming fire for holiness; he is filled with a yearning desire to make great sacrifices for God and his neighbor, to lead many souls to heaven.”

Studying the Four Temperaments allows us to distinguish between the idealism of a Melancholic and the enthusiasm of a Choleric, even when they are allied in the same cause.

These differences in motivation often come to the fore when a business, a charity, a political party or movement becomes big enough that the power, prestige, influence, or financial value competes with the value of its ideals.

Religion is not exempt from this tension.

It’s not necessarily a case of the idealist being “good” and the pragmatist being “bad”; but the ideal is less central to the Choleric than it is to the Melancholic. In a sense, the Melancholic wants to lose himself in the perfect ideal, even to the detriment of all else in life.

Consider the attitude of Benedict XVI to a “smaller purer Church” in contrast to Pope Francis’ wish that the Church be “the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

It’s not necessarily a point of opposition, but of different focus and emphasis corresponding to differences in temperament.

While the Melancholic seeks the ideal to complete him, the Choleric looks for a worthy cause that he can enlarge with his own efforts.

Really bad Cholerics

The problem is that really bad Cholerics look to a “worthy cause” purely as a means of building their own power, influence, prestige, and fulfilling their ambitions.

Good Cholerics know how to play “the game” in politics, business, or religion, but bad Cholerics are playing a game within a game, pretending to be good Cholerics, while abusing their position for their own selfish ends.

Hock describes at length the “dark side” of the Choleric temperament:

  • Full of himself, considers himself extraordinary, even his defects are worthy of praise.
  • Stubborn and opinionated, tolerates no contradiction, never willing to give in.
  • Self-confident, relies upon own knowledge and ability, does not like to ask for help.
  • Despises his fellow man, has contempt for others, especially his subjects.
  • Domineering and inordinately ambitious; belittles, combats, even persecutes by unfair means those who dare to oppose his ambition
  • Feels deeply hurt when he is humiliated or put to shame.
  • Vehemently excited by contradiction, resistance, and personal offenses. Excitement manifests itself in harsh words which may seem very decent and polite as far as phrasing is concerned, but hurt to the core by the tone in which they are spoken.
  • May even indulge in furious outbursts of anger. His anger easily degenerates into hatred. Grievous offenses he cannot forget. In his anger and pride he permits himself to be drawn to actions which he knows will be very detrimental to himself and to others. “The choleric prefers to die rather than to humble himself.”
  • Deceit, disguise, and hypocrisy. Practices deceit, because he is in no way willing to concede that he succumbed to a weakness and suffered a defeat. Uses hypocrisy, deception, and even outright lies, if he realizes that he cannot carry out his plans by force.
  • Lack of sympathy. A man of reason. Has two heads but no heart. Can be extremely hard, heartless, even cruel in regard to the sufferings of others. Can cold-bloodedly trample upon the welfare of others, if he cannot otherwise reach his goal.

These characteristics are echoed in the contemporary theory of “Dark Triad” anti-social personality traits: Machiavellianism, subclinical Narcissism, and subclinical Psychopathy. Understanding the Choleric temperament can help us recognise its worst manifestations in these anti-social traits.

Understanding “the game”

Cholerics are a valuable part of society, and it’s only natural that they gravitate toward positions of authority and leadership.

Not only do Cholerics typically have the intellect and energy to rise to the top of institutions and organisations, but it’s equally true that one would have to be Choleric to even want such positions in the first place.

Do you have what it takes to rise to the top in politics, business or other organisations?  Sanguines would rather enjoy life; Phlegmatics hate conflict and would rather everyone just get along; and Melancholics can’t handle the compromise and pragmatism behind the scenes.

So when you look at any powerful, prominent, influential person, bear in mind the higher probability that they are Choleric. They haven’t landed in their position of power by accident or unwillingly. They’ve likely worked hard to get where they are, and (depending on their trajectory) are either extremely proud of their accomplishments and status, or hungry for more.

Ecclesial hierarchies are probably not very different. Priests do not become bishops by accident, and while there are always exceptions, we should not assume that the spiritual ideals of the Church preclude pride and ambition among its leaders.

Can we identify bad Cholerics?

We can’t know without evidence whether someone is deceitful, hypocritical or malicious. But bad Cholerics also know that we can’t know, and exploit our uncertainty with cunning and duplicity.

A bad Choleric knows how to exploit other people’s values and beliefs as well. They know how to tailor their message to a specific audience for maximum impact.

If we understand how Cholerics function, it’s easier to pick the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. The faults of bad Cholerics become clearer up close, and in retrospect they are obvious, but without understanding the Choleric temperament we’re more liable to accept excuses and discount faults.

Being on the “right side” of a political or theological dispute gives bad Cholerics greater influence and credibility among their allies, and allows them to dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct as evidence of how much “the other side” hates them.

“By their fruits shall ye know them” is great advice, but what exactly are the “fruits” referred to? McCarrick raised millions of dollars for the Church as did Maciel, who also founded a religious institute with numerous vocations; so clearly money and followers are not the “fruits” referred to.

Personal charisma is another common attribute of bad Cholerics like McCarrick and Maciel. But charisma is a subjective phenomenon, and by no means a holy one. Narcissists are often described as charismatic, so long as you remain on their good side.

Bad Cholerics often have friends in high places who explicitly or implicitly vouch for them. Maciel was close to John Paul II, and McCarrick liked to name-drop “old friends” like Walter Kasper and Pope Francis. Again this is no accident: bad Cholerics cultivate powerful friends and contacts precisely for the prestige and influence they afford.

The problem is that good Cholerics value loyalty and networks as much as bad Cholerics do, albeit for different motives. The game comes naturally to both, and good Cholerics have a blindspot when it comes to the duplicity of loyal friends and allies.

Know yourself, know others

If we want to stand a better chance of spotting the wolves in sheep’s clothing we need to understand how different temperaments see the world, and recognise our own tendency to discount bad behaviour or character flaws in the people we respect and admire.

The Four Temperaments theory highlights underlying patterns of behaviour, and these patterns can serve us well in our interactions with others, even in understanding the nature of corruption and hypocrisy among religious leaders.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...