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Deaf as Other: a Levinasian reading of the history of Deaf Ministry in the Catholic Church in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

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This study is an attempt to write an interruptive and a heterological history of how the Catholic Church’s approach to deaf ministry both served and failed the Deaf Other. For centuries, Catholic ministry sought to enable deaf people, or sometimes referred to as the hearing impaired, to function optimally in a hearing world. The purpose of this study is to understand how it was that this construct emerged and then to deconstruct it using the philosophy of the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Using this Levinasian lens, it will be necessary to gauge the extent to which Catholic Deaf education and ministry were experienced by Deaf people as totalising and oppressive; and the extent to which they empowered some Deaf people to transform and to shape their lives in a more liberating way. Levinas agreed with Aristotle that language is constitutive of what it means to be human. However, he was concerned about language as revealing an ethical relationship between people. What constitutes our humanity is our willingness to take responsibility for the Other. For Levinas, responsibility is response-ability. Our responsiveness to the needs of others may mean the need to learn another language or to be open to communicate in a way which goes beyond the limit of verbal language or speech and the voice. Levinas never imagined, however, that his philosophy would be used in the context of Deaf people. The ministries of two Catholic Deaf priests, Fr Cyril Axelrod CSsR and Fr John Turner CMM, inspired lay Deaf people in South Africa, some of them Catholics, to challenge these totalising attitudes towards Deaf people. They countered audism and phonocentrism by setting up Deaf organisations like the Deaf Community of Cape Town (DCCT) and DeafSA to improve the situation for Deaf people. These Deaf people have shown that they are not defective human beings. They are not second-class citizens neither are they handicapped. Rather, they are people who have come to know themselves as Deaf and have inspired other Deaf people to appreciate their innate dignity as people created in God’s image and likeness. The findings of this research, firstly, was that the use of sign language by Catholic Deaf priests revitalised the ministry. Secondly, there needs to be more self-critical approaches to ministry to avoiding a totalising approach. Thirdly, there was often an inadequate support for marginalised Deaf people and priests in the church’s ministry. Fourthly, the breathing spaces created by Deaf people themselves largely contributed to the development of a more inclusive church where Deaf people could feel at home. Fifthly, the philosophy of Levinas proved useful in developing a post-audist reading of Deaf life and experience. Sixthly, hearing people have much to gain and learn from Deaf people in relation to what it means to be human.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.