The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) is the largest association of Catholic physicians and healthcare professionals in the United States. Founded in the early 20th century, prior to American Catholics’ integration into the mainstream of culture and institutions in the United States, the CMA’s mission of strengthening physicians in their faith, and organizing them in local guilds to support one another and the Church, has endured and now is more relevant than ever.
- Origins (1912-1932)
- Years of Growth (1933-1966)
- Years of Challenge and Decline (1967-1997)
- New Era of Growth and Renewal (1998-present)
- List of Presidents
The origins of the Catholic Medical Association can be discerned first in Boston, in the early years of the 20th century. 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. Rendrich, 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, a plan for a national organization of Catholic physicians was formulated and brought to fruition. Under the leadership of Dr. Rendrich, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds (NFCPG) began in New York City with the collaboration of seven existing guilds. The NFCPG’s objectives were to foster Catholic physicians’ faith and relationship with God and His Church, their knowledge and practice of moral and ethical medical principles, and mutual support and solidarity. 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 a framework within which common prayer, education, and a Catholic understanding of medical practice could be shared. At the center 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, and for medical-moral seminars. The Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of physicians, on October 18th, became the high point of the guilds’ yearly activities. The NFCPG introduced the celebration of White Masses (so named for the white coats of the physicians) to the United States. White Masses were celebrated on the Feast of Saint Luke in hospitals, chapels, parish churches, cathedrals, and everywhere that the physicians routinely gathered with their chaplains.
One of the first actions of the NFCPG was to create a scholarly journal, The Linacre Quarterly, which was designed to educate members and subscribers on how the principles of the Catholic faith applied to pertinent medical and scientific issues of the times. The name, The 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 and was a founding member of the Royal College of Physicians. Dr. Linacre was well known for his scholarship, high standards for scientific medicine, and strong Catholic faith.
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.
Years of Growth
Throughout the years of the Great Depression and World War II, the NFCPG grew slowly, but steadily. In 1948, there were 11 member guilds in the NFCPG. In 1950, 13 guilds were represented at the annual meeting in Atlantic City. As the Catholic population grew and attended college and medical school in increasing numbers in the 1950s, the NFCPG grew more rapidly. By 1957, there were 60 guilds and, in 1960, 92 member guilds in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada, with a total membership of 6,110. The 100th guild, in 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.
Based on the strength of this growth, the NFCPG was able to operate more independently. 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. In 1957, the tradition of holding an annual conference on medical-moral issues in the city of the national federation president was established.
During these years, the NFCPG also worked closely with the Church and the Catholic healthcare ministry in the United States. This was the beginning of a 21-year administrative association with the Catholic Hospital Association (later, the Catholic Health Association). The executive director of the CHA served as the moderator (chaplain) of the NFCPG and editor of The Linacre Quarterly. He organized NFCPG annual meetings 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.
Years of Challenge and Decline
The high watermark of guild formation and membership was reached in 1967, when over 120 guilds were listed in The Linacre Quarterly and total physician membership surpassed 10,000. But a cataclysm was about to strike the Church and the United States in 1968. This was the year that Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae vitae, when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and when riots and social unrest gripped the United States. The implications of this cataclysm have been felt by the Catholic Medical Association to this day.
In retrospect, it is clear that fissures in faith and the life of the Church in the United States were opening in the early 1960s. A debate, which began in 1964 over contraception, exposed differences among the advisory members of the National Catholic Conference of Bishops. 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 members of the commission strongly supported traditional Church teaching, while many family life directors openly supported contraception.
The relationship with the CHA fractured in 1965, when the CHA endorsed socialized medicine, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, 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 promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968, the NFCPG was torn apart, with successive presidents elected from opposite sides of the contraception controversy. At the 1968 national meeting in Miami, the majority vote of the general assembly supported the Holy Father and Humane vitae. This so enraged the then-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. After years of steady decline, the membership of the NFCPG dropped below 300 physicians, and only two local guilds, Chicago and Philadelphia, retained an organizational identity. In spite of these difficulties, the NFCPG continued to publish The Linacre Quarterly, to hold yearly educational conferences, and to maintain support for physicians loyal to the Catholic Church and her magisterial teaching.
At the end of this era, in 1997, the name of National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds was changed to the Catholic Medical Association to reflect the fact that its membership consisted almost entirely of individual members, rather than guilds, and to welcome other faithful Catholic healthcare professionals who had no other options to receive solid education and support in their Catholic faith.
New Era of Growth and Renewal
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 official 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 a new executive director, whose task was both to strengthen the CMA internally and to improve its ability to witness more effectively in the growing culture of death.
The CMA’s achievements over the last several years have confirmed the wisdom of the board’s initiatives. Since 2006, membership has increased over 80 percent and the number of guilds has grown from 8 to 76. The CMA has developed a closer working relationship with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and has become a more frequently cited authority in a variety of media sources. Since 2009, the CMA has been 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. Most recently, the CMA has enhanced its outreach to medical students by starting a Student Section. In June 2013, the CMA held its first annual Medical Student Boot Camp, an intensive four-day immersion in prayer, in study of Church teachings and medical ethics, and information in medical professionalism. This essential initiative will help to provide a new corps of faithful physician leaders for the future.
By the grace of God, the Catholic Medical Association will continue its apostolate of forming and supporting physicians and healthcare professionals to offer health care in conformity to Christ the Divine Physician. CMA members are challenged to be a voice of truth spoken in charity, to demonstrate how Catholic teachings on the human person, human rights and the common good intersect with and improve the science and practice of medicine, and to defend the sacredness and dignity of human life at all stages.