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A Brief History of the Catholic Medical Association
In 1912, His Eminence William Henry O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, founded the first Catholic Physicians Guild in Boston in order to educate physicians in Church doctrine related to the practice of medicine. In 1927, R.A. Rendrick, M.D. began a guild in Brooklyn, New York by convening physicians and a chaplain for a retreat using the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. The purpose of the retreat was to strengthen the physicians’ Catholic spirituality and to encourage growth in holiness. Over the next several years, the idea of the Catholic Physicians Guild began to spread throughout the boroughs of New York City and to other cities of the eastern United States, as many physicians began to gather with a chaplain for spiritual formation.
By 1932, the dream of a national organization of Catholic physicians came to fruition. With the leadership of Dr. Rendrick, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds (NFCPG) began in New York City as a unification of seven existing guilds. The federation’s objectives were to foster the Catholic physicians’ faith and relationship with God and His Church, the physicians’ knowledge and practice of moral and ethical medical principles, and solidarity among its members. To achieve these objectives the NFCPG formed a board of directors who hosted an annual meeting, organized North America into ten regions and appointed regional directors who were given the task of forming local guilds throughout North America.
The purpose of the local guild was to provide spiritual counsel and moral guidance to the local Catholic physician members to enable physicians to become more aware of their dependence on God, truly Catholic in their practice of medicine and more Christ-like in their works of mercy. The locus of each guild was a moderator or chaplain who functioned as the spiritual father and director to the members. Guilds met for the celebration of the Mass, spiritual retreats, for recollection and contemplation, and for medical-moral seminars. The October 18th Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of physicians, was the high point of the guilds’ yearly activities. White Masses (so named for the white coats of the physicians) were celebrated on the Feast of Saint Luke in hospitals, chapels, parish churches, cathedrals, and everywhere that the physicians routinely gathered with their chaplains.
Soon after the foundation of the NFCPG, a journal, the Linacre Quarterly, was designed to inform subscribers of how Catholic principles applied to pertinent medical and scientific issues of the times. The name Linacre Quarterly was chosen to honor Thomas Linacre M.D., a physician and priest in 16th century England, who served as the private physician to King Henry VIII. Dr. Linacre founded the Royal College of Physicians and through it regulated the practice of medicine in England. He was well known for his scholarship, high ideals of scientific medicine, and strong Catholic faith.
In 1948, there were 11 member guilds in the NFCPG. In 1950, the annual meeting in Atlantic City was attended by 13 guilds. By 1957, there were 60 guilds; and in 1960 there were 92 member guilds in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada, with a total membership of 6,110. The 100th guild, Rochester, Minnesota, was welcomed in 1961 at a grand celebration in New York City. In 1963, the NFCPG was the sixth largest medical organization in the United States, with a membership of 7,000. The high watermark was a total physician membership of more than 10,000 in 1967.
In 1944, the NFCPG set up permanent headquarters in the offices of the Catholic Hospital Association in St Louis.
Beginning with its inception in 1932, the national federation met once a year at the American Medical Association’s annual meeting, mostly for convenience as the vast majority of physicians in the early decades of the 20th century attended the AMA meeting. The AMA functioned in much the same way that specialty medical associations function today. For one week, medical scientific papers were presented for physicians to become current on research and practice. On the Friday of the AMA meeting, the NFCPG conference opened with an officers’ meeting and the celebration of Holy Mass at which any deceased members of the national federation were remembered. At the general meeting following Mass, each guild delegate delivered a report of his guild’s activities of the preceding year. A dinner for the physicians and spouses was held Friday evening.
The first year the NFCPG met at a separate time and place from the AMA was 1956, when the Detroit Guild, under President Paul Muske, M.D., hosted the 1956 meeting in Detroit. Also in 1956, a conference with speakers on current medical moral issues was added to the regular program, along with an evening banquet with a guest speaker. The following year, the annual meeting was held in New York City and the tradition of a conference on medical-moral issues with an evening banquet in the city of the national federation president was established.
In 1944, the national federation by invitation set up permanent headquarters in the offices of the Catholic Hospital Association in St Louis. This was the beginning of a 21-year administrative association with the Catholic Hospital Association. The executive director of the CHA served as the Moderator (chaplain) of the NFCPG, as organizer of the NFCPG annual meetings, as editor of the Linacre Quarterly (the sole medical-moral journal published at that time) and maintained the financial and membership records for the NFCPG. The health care of priests and religious was a particular concern for both the NFCPG and the CHA, and together they formed a program to meet these needs.
Both the CHA and the NFCPG came under the supervision of the Social Action Department of the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). The Bishops relied upon the physicians of the NFCPG for expert opinions on medical issues. In addition the White House regularly asked the NFCPG for briefings on the Catholic perspective on current medical-moral issues.
A strain in the relationship with the National Catholic Conference of Bishops began in 1964 over contraception. In 1964, the NFCPG co-sponsored, with the Family Life Committee of the NCCB, a conference on natural family planning that was attended by more than 200 diocesan family life directors. During the conference, a subgroup of attendees drafted a letter to be sent to Pope Paul VI asking him to endorse the use of the contraceptive pill. After a debate in the general assembly, a substitute resolution was adopted to develop a special commission composed of an equal number of Catholic physicians and family life diocesan directors to study human life, natural family planning and abortion. The commission met four times a year in Chicago for several years. The physician component strongly supported traditional Church teaching, while many of the family life directors openly supported contraception.
The relationship with the CHA fractured in 1965, when the CHA endorsed socialized medicine, which the NFCPG opposed. The executive committee of the NFCPG made the decision to dissociate from the CHA. Robert Herzog was hired to serve as the executive secretary of the NFCPG and administrative headquarters were moved to Milwaukee.
In the years after the 1968 promulgation of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, the NFCPG was torn apart, with successive presidents elected from opposite sides of the contraception controversy. At the national meeting in Miami in 1968, the majority vote of the general assembly supported the Holy Father and Humane Vitae. This so inflamed the president of the NFCPG that he resigned and many guilds separated from the NFCPG. Eventually the strong guilds from Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, New York and Boston, as well as a multitude of smaller guilds, became virtually inactive. The membership of the NFCPG declined to as low as 300 physicians and two member guilds: Chicago and Philadelphia. Over the next three decades the national federation, although significantly reduced in size, continued its yearly annual meetings and remained vital due to the hard work of physicians loyal to the Catholic Church and her magisterial teaching.
In 1997, the name of National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds was changed to the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) to reflect the fact that its membership consisted almost entirely of individual members. Chicago and Philadelphia continued as the only organized guilds.
As the new millennium dawned, and after much prayer and discernment, the CMA’s board undertook three initiatives to reorganize and reinvigorate the CMA. First, the board’s size and structure were streamlined to facilitate both broad representation and timely decision-making. Second, the board worked to renew the guild structure of the CMA, establishing new criteria for local groups to meet to be chartered as guilds of the CMA. Finally, the board created a new structure of leadership at the national office so that the CMA could have consistent, effective representation with other national groups and in the media. In late 2006, the Board hired John F. Brehany, Ph.D., S.T.L. as Executive Director.
The CMA’s achievements over the last several years have confirmed the wisdom of the board’s initiatives. Since 2006, over 40 new guilds have been chartered, the CMA has developed a closer working relationship with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the CMA has become a more frequently cited authority in a variety of media sources. In 2009-2010, the CMA was heavily engaged in the struggle to protect conscience rights and achieve authentic health care reform. In addition, the CMA has enhanced its presence on the internet and strengthened the quality of the Linacre Quarterly.
By the grace of God, the Catholic Medical Association will continue its apostolate of forming and supporting physicians to practice medicine in conformity to Christ the Divine Physician. CMA members are challenged to be a voice of truth for physicians and the community, to articulate and demonstrate how Catholic teachings on the human person, human rights and the common good can be applied in the science and practice of medicine, and to defend the sacredness and dignity of human life at all stages.