Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

Book and Media


Review by Leah Pope Parker, University of Southern Mississippi,
Email: Leah.Parker@usm.edu

Keywords: spirituality, religion, Deafness

Lana Portolano’s Be Opened!: The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture provides an informative narrative of the history of deafness and the Catholic Church, related through often exciting tales of striving against numerous obstacles in order to serve deaf communities and welcome Deaf Catholics more fully into the fold of Catholicism. Most impactfully, Portolano extensively argues for the importance of sign language, both for the inclusion of Deaf Catholics in vital sacraments and for the more embodied understanding of scripture that gestural communication makes possible. Be Opened! provides a thorough account of deafness in the history of the Catholic Church since the early modern era, based on research in signed histories, both recorded and new interviews, videos of signed events, ethnographic observations, and broad work on text-based archives. In particular, Be Opened! focuses on deaf pastoral care; that is, the practices by which both clergy and lay-people, deaf and hearing, have historically reached out to and provided religious education for deaf people, those who are already Catholic as well as those who might be converted. 

Portolano is straightforward about the perspective from which she approaches deaf Catholic history. She is “a hearing person,” who “converted to Catholicism in graduate school” and later “adopted a four-year-old deaf child” (vii). Portolano carefully negotiates her relationship to deaf history as a hearing parent of a deaf child, making it a point to foreground the deaf actors in this history. Perhaps less carefully, Portolano negotiates her own bias as a Catholic, with the perspective that becoming Catholic is inherently a ‘good’ thing (for example, deaf persons finding a home in the Catholic church are described as the “more fortunate,” p. 188). The book frequently exhibits what might be called a ‘missionary bias,’ exhibited particularly strongly when competition arises for the conversion of d/Deaf communities (see, e.g., pp. 237, 254). Though other denominations of Christianity, and indeed other world religions, appear as cooperative entities and sometimes as inspirations for what Catholic actors do for deaf communities (see, e.g., pp. 52–53), the bias that Catholicism is the better religion remains apparent. This bias is not countered at any point in the book, but Portolano is upfront about it, and that is certainly a strength to Be Opened!; if you are looking for a specifically Catholic perspective on d/Deaf history, that is indeed what this book provides.

An unacknowledged bias of the study is also its perspective coming from Western European and North American cultures; while many other parts of the world are referenced and even provide the stories told in full chapters, Portolano is bound to the Catholic perspective of ‘evangelizing:’ that is, encouraging commitment to the faith and to the institution of the Catholic Church. In some cases, the prioritization (and presumed positivity) of evangelizing “unchurched groups” (p. 12) glosses over the very real damage done by the secular colonization that has at times accompanied this evangelization. Portolano’s attachment to evangelizing may exacerbate some readers, as may a few other perspectives taken on deafness. Be Opened! frequently refers to the parallel between Christ’s giving hearing to a deaf man in Mark 7:31–37 and the call for all Christians to “be opened” in faith (from which the book receives its title, see pp. 7–8), which is not a universally appreciated way of conceiving of deafness. What it does reveal, however, is a set of particularly Catholic ways of conceiving of deafness, all of which provide valuable insight for scholars, especially non-Catholic scholars, studying any intersection of Catholicism (or indeed, Christianity) and the full community inclusion of people with any kind of disability. 

Be Opened! is organized in two parts. The first, “Deaf Catholic Heritage,” draws out the history of Catholic apostolicism to d/Deaf communities predominantly in Europe and North America (and in one chapter, Brazil), identifying key moments in the care and inclusion of deaf people in the Catholic church. Major figures span from Saint René Goupil, a late-deafened and martyred Jesuit missionary to French Canada (d. 1642) to Abbé Charles La Fonta (1878–1927), “the first substantiated case of a culturally deaf Catholic priest” (p. 93) and from Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée (1712–1789), “a Catholic priest who worked with deaf people in France” (p. 27) to the International Catholic Deaf Association (formed in 1949). Recurrent themes in these chapters include the contest between oralist education of deaf people and education that encourages natural sign language; the struggles of deaf men to become Catholic priests; and the vitalization of Deaf Catholic communities when culturally deaf priests became available to communicate about matters of faith in signed languages.

Part two of Be Opened!, “New Deaf Evangelization,” takes up a charge from the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II, 1962–1965) to “reexamine communication among Catholics all over the world” (p. 167). These chapters expand the purview of the book to global missions and efforts to evangelize communities of deaf people around the world toward Catholicism, discussing the development of Camp Mark Seven, “a camp for deaf and hard of hearing youth” (p. 194) in upstate New York; missionary work in, for example, India, Hong Kong, and Cambodia; and recommendations for shaping the future of Deaf Catholics’ place in the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the most moving chapter in Be Opened! is chapter 11, “Love and the Gift of Listening,” which addresses the sexual abuse outrages that have troubled the Catholic Church in recent decades. In particular, Portolano discusses the abuses that occurred at St. John’s School for the Deaf in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, with deaf students as victims and survivors. “Love and the Gift of Listening” tells the story of that school, its students, crimes committed, and the pursuit of justice. While careful not to criticize the Church directly, Portolano reveals that having few signing adults in their lives limited victims’ ability to reach out and thus made possible the long duration of the abuse; this point becomes part of the book’s call for more signing priests and more integration of Deaf Catholics into the mainstream of the Church.

Portolano states a desire for a broad audience, both deaf and hearing, Catholic and otherwise, and the book succeeds in bridging those audiences—or at least, it seems to do so, from my own acknowledged perspective as a hearing non-Catholic. However, at times it seems the audience is presumed to be hearing outsiders to Deaf Catholic culture, not members of that community. For example, Portolano concludes her introduction, “[I]f we are ready, perhaps the deaf will teach us to listen” (p. 17), clearly signaling that “we”—the author and the reader—are not ourselves expected to be part of the deaf, Deaf, or Deaf Catholic communities. If they are willing to read through that perspective, anyone interested in the history of deafness and religion or the history of the Catholic Church’s relationship to underserved groups would gain a great deal of knowledge from Be Opened! The book may also be valuable for teaching in social work, counseling, or religion courses that focus on serving marginalized communities. Assigning some or all of this book would provide students insight into some ways—specifically Catholic ways—of serving the d/Deaf community, for students to either emulate or define themselves against. Particularly helpful in a teaching context would be the lists of recommended reading for both Part I (pp. 162–163) and Part II (pp. 294–295).

Be Opened! is an illuminating volume that both fulfills its promise of providing a history of deafness and the Catholic Church and also serves as an interesting documentary source in its own right, recording perspectives on deafness and signed languages within the Catholic Church. Portolano correctly writes, “As always, the deaf experience is not one size fits all” (p. 178) and Be Opened! offers much appreciated insight into some ways of understanding deafness from a Catholic perspective.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.


Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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