The first Catholic Physicians Guild was founded in Boston in 1912 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. 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, members 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 effectively advance NFCPG’s objectives in parishes, towns and dioceses. 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 the years after the 1968 promulgation of 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, CMA’s board undertook 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.
CMA’s achievements over the last several years have confirmed the wisdom of the board’s initiatives. Over 40 new guilds have been chartered, the CMA has developed a closer working relationship with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and CMA has become a more frequently cited authority in a variety of media sources. In 2009-2010, CMA was heavily engaged in the struggle to protect conscience rights and achieve authentic health care reform. In addition, 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.