Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, January 03, 2008

To best "accommodate the deaf", let's begin by getting to know them

Though I see it so often, I am still surprised when hearing people who know next to nothing about deafness presume to tell others what deaf people can and cannot do; I marvel at how easily a hearing expert in a given area assumes that his expertise in that area provides an adequate understanding of the deaf issues related to that area, when in reality his opinions are as superficial as anyone's who does not live with deafness daily; and my heart sinks at how these hearing experts might try to express themselves in ways they think are respectful toward the deaf, but which often amount to a repackaging of old prejudices and unfairly applied double standards, the refutation of which, though deserved, will strike some as hypersensitive nit-picking.

I am not deaf and do not presume to speak for them. But, as
one with some exposure to certain issues facing deaf Catholics, I think a response to Rev. Edward McNamara's January 1 Zenit post entitled "Accommodating the Deaf" is needed. One "M.D.", a Canadian, had asked Fr. McNamara whether Catholic churches should have American Sign Language and closed-captioning available at Mass and whether deaf people were allowed to enter religious life. I recognize Fr. McNamara's expertise in liturgical matters and applaud his desire to see deaf Catholics accorded their basic rights, but I found his discussion of these matters markedly wanting.

M.D.'s questions afforded the perfect opportunity to educate (hearing) readers about what is perhaps the most common misperception impeding the hearing world's understanding of the deaf, namely, that: "Deafness is not about hearing but about communication."
Paul Ogden, The Silent Garden (1996) at 3. An author's failure to appreciate and convey that point is, I think, tantamount to admitting that one has no special expertise on anything related to deafness.

Sign language at Mass

The response to M.D.'s first question should have begun by clarifying that
American Sign Language is just one of dozens of documented sign languages around the world. From there one could have gently steered M.D. away from thinking that the goal should be one of establishing ASL per se in all churches, and toward the goal of trying to provide real time communication in whatever language is used by the deaf in that area. In Canada, for example, that might well be ASL, but it might also be, say, Langue des signes quebecoise (LSQ).

I would have warned against seeing captioning as the solution to the communication problem for the simple reason that captioning is one-directional; people might read captioning, but they don't respond in it. Captioning cannot, therefore, offer "that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). Sign languages do.

I would not have referenced the USCCB's document
Built of Living Stones (2000) for, by its plain terms, it has little to do with the communication barriers confronting the deaf in liturgy. On the other hand, M.D. would have benefitted by knowing, for example, that various canons protect the right of all the faithful to participation in the liturgical and spiritual life of the Church (1983 CIC 213-214) and that papal recognition of the appropriateness of sign languages in the liturgy has already been given (see private reply of 10 December 1965, Canon Law Digest VI: 552-553; Bishops' Commission on the Liturgical Apostolate, Newsletter 2:4 (April 1966) 30-31). Those norms are much better standards by which to measure our commitment to including deaf people in public worship than are wordy quotes from an episcopal conference statements on church buildings.

Speaking of episcopal conferences, I question the claim that some bishops conferences have published official texts for signing the Mass. Granted, I do not know everything that goes on in the Deaf Catholic world, but I have never heard of such texts, and I doubt they exist if only because an accepted system for
writing sign language does not yet exist. There are, I grant, some dictionaries of religious sign in circulation. More ambitiously, Joan Blake published a three-volume "gloss series" for interpreters, Signing the Scriptures (2003-2005). But the subtitle of her work "A Starting Point for Interpreting the Sunday Readings" and a glance at the technical data at the front of each book, show that they make no pretense to being official publications of an episcopal conference (in accord with 1983 CIC 826 and 838). There is also a project being spearheaded by the (American) National Catholic Office for the Deaf whereby a translation of parts of the Mass from Latin directly into ASL (and not simply into signed English) is being developed for possible approval by ecclesiastical authority, but none of these undertakings would come close to showing that an episcopal conference has yet published official texts for signing the Mass.

Deaf priestly and religious vocations

Fr. McNamara correctly saw in M.D.'s question about admission of the deaf into religious life a wider question on the eligibility of the deaf for holy orders, and the first thing I would have pointed out to M.D. is that former
Pio-Benedictine restrictions against ordaining the deaf have been eliminated from the revised law (cf. 1917 CIC 984 and 1983 CIC 1029 and approved authors). But the problems here go beyond those of omission.

For example, although reminding readers that some jobs have physical ability requirements (a point no reasonable person would argue), the examples Fr. McNamara offered thereof (a blind pilot or surgeon, a police officer with - I'm assuming - Type I diabetes) fail to carry his point, for all of these examples describe cases wherein the physical requirements for the job are based on immediate safety concerns. What are we to conclude from these examples, that deaf priests are physically unsafe for ministry?

Fr. McNamara's observation that most priests spend much of their time "listening" to people, and his implied question about how a deaf priest could perform a role that required "listening" to folks, left me wondering, in all sincerity, whether it ever occurred to Fr. McNamara that doctors, lawyers, teachers, counselors, and a host of other professionals spend much of their time, too, "listening" to clients, and yet each of these major professions boasts many deaf practitioners! For that matter, parents need to spend much of their time "listening" to their children! So, unless Fr. McNamara holds that deaf
physicians and attorneys are unable to serve their clients or that deaf parents are unable to raise their children for lack of "listening" ability, on just what grounds does he think that deaf priests are unable to serve the people of God in active ministry?

But more seriously, why does Fr. McNamara speculate at length on whether the deaf ought to be ordained, yet fail to disclose that, in the United States alone, at least a dozen deaf men have already been ordained to priesthood (religious and diocesan) or permanent diaconate since 1977 and that several others are in seminary formation now? Should not such a crucial fact have been conveyed to M.D. who was, after all, asking precisely about the possibilities of deaf Catholics entering priestly and religious vocations? Why scratch one's head for fuzzy recollections of blind nuns somewhere in the past when examples of deaf clergy actively ministering among us now are readily at hand?

Fr. McNamara goes on to ask, not unreasonably, whether deaf priests might be "limited" in their ministry. Perhaps they would be; it's worth thinking through. But in asking the question, are we implying a standard for deaf clergy that is not imposed on hearing candidates for orders? Would not, for example, every priest who speaks only English be "limited" in his ministry to Hispanics? Is that grounds not to ordain him? For that matter, would a hearing priest ignorant of sign language be "limited" in his ability to serve deaf Catholics? Just what kind of criterion is this, "limited in ministry"?

Finally, having raised his concerns about deaf men being "limited" in ministry, it seems only fair that Fr. McNamara also consider its correlative, namely, whether deaf Catholics have been "limited" by a dearth of clergy who intimately know their life and language of sign? Anyone who knows anything about deaf religious demographics in America knows that deaf people are among the least catechized segments of the population, with a 5% "churched-rate" being the most generous estimate offered. Who, I ask, spends time "listening" to them?

With over half a million North Americans using ASL as their first language, and but a handful of deaf Catholic clergy to minister to them in the language they immediately understand, it baffles me how someone can really wonder how deaf priests who can't "listen" to people will ever be kept busy. Baffles me almost as much as the proclivity of hearing people to think they know more about deafness than do the deaf.

My suggestion for a good way to accomodate the deaf? Let's begin by getting to know them.

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Want to read more about these issues? With no claim of completeness for this list, and in no particular order, you might check out: Carol Padden & Tom Humphries, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Harvard, 1988); Anne Bamberg, "Culture sourde, droit canonique, et deontologie professionelle: reflexion a partir des interpretes pour Sourds", Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 81 (2005) 200-213, and id., "Sourds et silences liturgiques", Gregorianum 85 (2004) 689-698; Edward Peters, "Our decision on a cochlear implant", American Annals of the Deaf 145/3 (October, 2000) 263-267, id., American Sign Language in Catholic Liturgy I, and id., American Sign Language in Catholic Liturgy II; Paul Higgins, Outsiders in a Hearing World: A Sociology of Deafness (Sage Publications, 1980); Peter Feuerherd, "Educating Deaf Ministers" Church 22 (Fall 2006), "Ministries" 2-6; Marcel Broesterhuizen, "The Gospel Preached by the Deaf: Conversation as Complete Form of Language in Pastoral Ministry with the Deaf", Louvain Studies 27 (2002) 359-375, and id., "Faith in Deaf Culture", Theological Studies 66 (2005) 304-329; Charles Dittmeier, "Deaf People and Catholic Liturgy", Pastoral Music (June-July 2006) 19-21; Michael Ndurumo & Esther Njeri Kiaritha, "The Deaf and Hard of Hearing: an Implication for Church Leaders", African Ecclesial Review 48 (2006) 187-202; Marleen Bateman Sullivan, "Hearing Loss: an invisible disability", Liguorian 91 (May-June 2003) 21-23; Mandy Erickson, "A Parish Where the Deaf Come First", St. Anthony Messenger (March 1999) 12-15; Marilyn Daniels, "The Benedictine Roots in the Development of Sign Language", American Benedictine Review 44 (1993) 383-402; and Jerome Schein & David Stewart, Language in Motion: Exploring the Nature of Sign (Gallaudet University, 1995).