Deafness and the Catholic Church

Robert Traynor
March 18, 2013

popeThe topics discussed at Hearing International are generally secular in nature as they relate to hearing impairment and audiology.  But with the election of Pope Frances I, and his Inaugural Mass today (March 19, 2013), it is fitting that Hearing International  review the position of the Roman Catholic Church on Deafness.

Like most organized religions, the Catholic Church has reached out to the deaf and hard of hearing for centuries.

Current Church Programs for the Deaf and HOH

The Archdiocese of Washington, serving as an inclusive model for other parishes around the world, has taken to heart the statement issued by the American Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral of 1978 by providing services to deaf and hard of hearing Catholics and their families. The Center for Deaf Ministries strives to preserve Deaf Catholic Culture while celebrating the Deaf Person in the Life of the Church.  This Archdiocese  is also responsible for Gallaudet University which it has served for more than 50 years. As those outside the US may be unaware, Gallaudet is the only liberal arts college for the Deaf in the world and has long been is the seed bed for future Deaf Catholic leaders.

Some examples of Deaf Ministry Programs are: pope3

  • Sunday and Weekday Signed Masses
  • Interpreted Liturgies across the Archdiocese
  • Pastoral Counseling
  • Sign Language Interpreter Training
  • Penance Services
  • Weddings, Baptisms, Wakes and Funerals in Sign
  • Lenten and Advent Services
  • R.C.I.A. (Signed)
  • Adult Formation
  • Training Programs for Lectors, Eucharistic Ministers and catechists
  • Retreats
  • Social Activities/Special Events
  • Pilgrimages for the Deaf
  • Deaf Third Order Franciscan Fraternity
  • ICDA Chapter #29 (International Catholic Deaf Association)
  • Sacramental Preparation- Nationally Renowned Marriage Prep Program for the Deaf
  • Children’s Religious Education Programs
  • The “Silent Witness” Newsletter
  • Deaf/Blind Interpreting Services and SSP Services

pope1Although in 2013 the Catholic Church (and other religions) has a signficant worldwide ministry toward the deaf and hard of hearing, its position throughout history has been controversial.  Much of its early approach toward the deaf and hard of hearing was shaped by the prevailing philosophical thoughts of the times.

Historical Perspective

 That there were deaf persons in the remote past is evident from thepope4 fact that the causes of deafness, such as disease, were at least as prevalent then as now and, of course, the known treatments for these difficulties were minimal. The controversy over religious education of the deaf began with the early philosophers, who, while now seen as misguided, were the intellectuals of the time and, as such, quite influential.  About 1000 BC, Hebrew Law (the Talmud) did not allow deaf people to own property. A few hundred years later; 427-347 BC,  Plato’s philosophy of innate intelligence did not help the plight of the deaf. He felt that all intelligence was present at birth and all people were born with perfect abstracts, idpope5eas, and language in their minds and they only required time to demonstrate their intelligence; without speech there was no outward sign of intelligence, so deaf people must not be capable of ideas or language.  This philosophical error was further enhanced by Aristotle, 384-322 BC, who believed that people could not be educated without hearing and, thus, deaf people could not learn. According to Aristotle,   Greek was the perfect language and all those who did not speak Greek were considered Barbarians. Snce the deaf could not speak Greek, they were considered barbarians.

Before the Christian Era, conditions for the deaf were deplorable. It was commonly thought that the deaf were under a curse,  they were called monsters, and even put to death as soon as their deafness was ascertained. Lucretius presents the typical opinion of Roman times that the deaf could not be educated, in his words:

  • To instruct the deaf, no art can ever reach,
  • No care improve them, and no wisdom teach.

Greek and Roman poets and philosophers classified them as defectives, and the Justinian Codepop6 abridged their civil rights.  In families they were considered a disgrace, or looked upon as a useless burden and kept in isolation. A bright page in the New Testament narrates that kindness and good to all did not applied to the “deaf and dumb.”  After the Example presented in the Bible, the Church extended its charity to this afflicted class, and has led the way in opening up other channels of thought in place of hearing.

No Catholic theologian maintained that those deaf and dumb from birth were beyond salvation simply because “Faith cometh by hearing” (Romans 10:17).  The assertion is often made, however, (without reliable references) that St. Augustine held such an opinion. Although St. Augustine may have shared the prevailing opinion of his time that the deaf could not be educated, he certainly did not exclude them from the possibility of salvation any more than he excluded pagans to whom the Gospel had not yet been preached. His opinion was based upon the old fallacy of post hoc pope7ergo propter hoc,  or (in English) “since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.”  In St. Augustine’s opinion, circa 354 AD – 430 AD, deafness was the result of sins of the parents that were visited on their children; therefore “afflicted” children were a sign of God’s anger or punishment for parents’ secret sins.

Which led to……

Based upon the prevailing opinions of philosophers and saints, the deaf and hard of hearing in the early Church were excluded since they could not hear the word of God. relates that in the Middle Ages,  “people born deaf could not have faith, could not be saved and were barred from churches.”  At that time, the attitude of most learned scholars was that to understand God one must be able to hear the word of God.  The literature connected with the education of the deaf suggests that the real history of deaf-mute instruction, and the beginning of the changing of Church attitudes toward the deaf and hard of hearing dates from the time of the Reformation.  The famous educators of the deaf received their first lessons from those who preceded the Reformation and were not influenced by the old philosophies as they undertook the instruction of deaf-mutes for the sole purpose of imparting religious instruction. The Church faithful included audiologists and educators of the deaf, such as Cardano, Ponce de LeonBonet, De l’ Epee, SicardMassieauClerc and Gallaudet among others.

In the Christian era, for a few hundred years the prevailing information was that there was no capability for the deaf to learn and, therefore, no capability to facilitate a religious education.  As thinking changed during the reformation, it was the Abbes and other priests interested in saving souls who fostered the education of the hearing impaired.

As Catholics celebrate a new beginning with a new Pope,  Hearing International would like to remind professionals around the world that it was Catholics who began the early development of deaf education.

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  1. Wonderful! I didn’t know my church even had a history on hearing loss. That the church would be in the forefront of the hearing wars, is no surprise. It ties in well with a marvelous book “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas E. Woods Jr. It is also useful to note the church is also the mother of modern science, which has resulted in the wonderful advances we enjoy such as cochlear implants.

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