Catholic Medical Association (CMA) is the largest association of Catholic physicians and healthcare professionals in the United States.
Established in the early 1900s, CMA brings together Catholic physicians and other healthcare professionals to strengthen members’ faith, to promote fellowship, and to support the Church.
- Origins (1912-1932)
- Growth Years (1933-1966)
- Challenges (1967-1997)
- Renewal (1998-present)
- List of Presidents
The origins of Catholic Medical Association can be traced to 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 to educate physicians in Church doctrine related to the practice of medicine. In 1927, R.A. Rendrich, M.D. established a guild in Brooklyn, New York. He also initiated Ignatian Spiritual Exercises retreats to strengthen Guild physicians’ Catholic spirituality and to encourage them to grow in holiness. Over the next several years, the idea of a Catholic Physicians Guild spread throughout the boroughs of New York and to other eastern U.S. cities. As a result, 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 Dr. Rendrich’s leadership and with the collaboration of seven existing guilds, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds (NFCPG) was founded in New York City. With oversight from its Board of Directors, NFCPG established the following objectives:
- To foster Catholic physicians’ faith and relationship with God and His Church;
- To strengthen members’ knowledge and practice of moral and ethical medical principles; and,
- To promote mutual support and solidarity.
The Board 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 18, became the high point of the guilds’ yearly activities.
NFCPG introduced the celebration of White Masses (named for physicians’ white coats) 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.
NFCPG also created a scholarly journal, The Linacre Quarterly, which was designed to educate members and subscribers about the application of the Catholic faith to pertinent medical and scientific issues of the time. The name, The Linacre Quarterly, was chosen to honor Thomas Linacre, M.D., a physician and priest in 16th century England. Dr. Linacre served as the private physician to King Henry VIII and was a founding member of the Royal College of Physicians. He was well known for his scholarship, high standards for scientific medicine, and strong Catholic faith.
Beginning in 1932, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds met once a year. The meeting conveniently coincided with the American Medical Association’s annual meeting since the vast majority of physicians in the early 20th century attended the AMA gathering. The AMA functioned in much the same way that specialty medical associations function today. For one week, medical/scientific papers were presented to enable 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 over the preceding year. A dinner for NFCPG physicians and spouses was held Friday evening.
Throughout the years of the Great Depression and World War II, NFCPG grew slowly, but steadily. In 1948, there were 11 NFCPG member guilds.
During these years, NFCPG 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). CHA’s executive director served as the moderator (chaplain) of NFCPG and editor of The Linacre Quarterly. He organized NFCPG annual meetings and maintained NFCPG’s financial and membership records. The health care of priests and religious was a particular concern for both NFCPG and the CHA, and together they formed a program to meet these needs.
As Catholics attended college and medical school in increasing numbers in the 1950s, NFCPG grew more rapidly. In 1950, 13 guilds sent representatives to the annual meeting in Atlantic City. 1956 was the first year that NFCPG met separately from the AMA. The Detroit Guild, under President Paul Muske, M.D., hosted the 1956 NFCPG meeting in Detroit. Also, in 1956, a conference with eminent speakers, who discussed salient medical-moral issues, was added to the regular program, along with an evening banquet and a keynote address. In 1957, the tradition of orchestrating an annual conference focusing on medical-moral issues and convening the event in the home city of the national federation president began.
By 1957, there were 60 guilds. Three years later, 92 member guilds were active in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada, with a total membership of 6,110. In 1961, a grand celebration in New York City marked the founding of the 100th guild, which was located in Rochester, Minnesota. In 1963, NFCPG was the sixth largest medical organization in the United States, with a membership of 7,000.
By the close of 1967, NFCPG, which had separated from CHA two years earlier, recorded over 10,000 physician members and 120 guilds—the highest totals ever.
Despite this impressive growth, NFCPG faced challenges.
The mid- to late 1960s ushered in a period of social upheaval and ignited debates across the country about marriage, reproduction and responsible parenthood. The encyclical, Humanae vitae, written by Pope St. Paul VI in 1968, presented clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.
Against this background, fissures in faith and the life of the Church, which initially appeared in the early years of the decade, became more pronounced. NFCPG guilds and members were not immune. Some guilds separated from the organization. Others, such as those in Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, New York and Boston, became virtually inactive. NFCPG membership dropped below 300 physicians. Only two local guilds, Chicago and Philadelphia, retained an organizational identity.
However, by 1997, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds had reconstituted itself under a new name, Catholic Medical Association. This new name reflected the fact that CMA’s membership consisted almost entirely of individuals, rather than guilds. It also signaled a welcome to other faithful Catholic healthcare professionals, who desired a solid education in and support for their Catholic faith.
As the new millennium dawned, and after much prayer and discernment, CMA’s Board undertook three initiatives to reorganize and reinvigorate the organization.
First, the Board’s size and structure were streamlined to facilitate both broad representation and timely decision-making. Second, the Board worked to renew CMA’s guild structure, establishing new criteria for local groups to meet to become chartered as CMA official guilds. Finally, the Board created a new leadership structure, establishing a national office to enable CMA to have consistent, effective representation, particularly among other national organizations and in the media. In late 2006, the Board hired a new executive director whose dual task was to strengthen CMA internally and to improve its ability to witness more effectively in the public square.
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 eight to 76. CMA has developed a closer working relationship with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has become a more frequently cited authority in a variety of media sources.
Since 2009, CMA is heavily engaged in the struggle to protect conscience rights and achieve authentic health care reform. Further, CMA enhanced its presence on the Internet and strengthened The Linacre Quarterly. Most recently, CMA broadened its outreach to medical students by initiating a Student Section. In June 2013, CMA held its first annual Medical Student Boot Camp, an intensive four-day immersion in prayer and the study of Church teachings and medical ethics as well as medical professionalism. This essential initiative will help to develop the next generation of faithful physician leaders.
The future is indeed bright for Catholic Medical Association. By the grace of God, CMA will continue to support physicians and other healthcare professionals in offering health care in conformity with Christ the Divine Physician.