Restoring the Integrity of Medicine

The Catholic Medical Association will be meeting in Seattle to discuss life under Obamacare.

SEATTLE — The initial inspiration for the 79th Educational Conference of the Catholic Medical Association comes from Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

“‘What is man?’ [is a question that] should be answered before any student or practitioner of medicine approaches a patient,” according to Dr. Jan Hemstad, the president-elect for the association.

He is overseeing CMA’s annual gathering, held in Seattle this year Oct. 28-31. Its theme is “Restoring the Integrity of Medicine: An Imperative for a Christian Anthropology.”

“Our primary focus for these conferences is always the proper formation of physicians, the topics [arising] from the critical issues of the day,” he explained.

This year there is an added incentive in discussing the ethical practice of medicine, given the passage earlier this year of the massive health-care reform bill, according to Hemstad.

“President Obama’s direction has exacerbated these issues for us, by choosing a course almost diametrically opposed to an authentic Christian model,” Hemstad remarked. “Obamacare is looming over us as a dark cloud — a very dark cloud,” he suggested.

“Now, more than ever, there is as an absolute imperative for our profession to first answer this question [What is man?]” from a proper Christian anthropology based in truth, he explained.

Without knowing that truth about man, we cannot “practice an authentic vocation as physicians. We must re-integrate these first principles into our way of thinking and knowing,” Hemstad emphasized.

Bishop Robert Vasa, episcopal adviser for the CMA, agrees. He told the Register: “Being a Catholic physician requires proper information, but it also requires proper formation, and it requires a support system to help assure that the mission of Christ, who healed body and soul, continues.”

The original Catholic physician guild system, begun cooperatively by clergy and physicians in this country 98 years ago, was established for that very purpose.

Educating Physicians

In 1912, Archbishop William O’Connell of Boston founded the first Catholic Physicians Guild in that city, educating physicians in Church doctrine related to the practice of medicine.

Fifteen years later, a guild began in New York City, holding an Ignatian retreat for physicians. Gradually, Catholic physician guilds began to spread throughout the eastern United States.

By 1932, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds (NFCPG) was formed in New York City. Guilds met for the celebration of the Mass, spiritual retreats and seminars dealing with medical ethics. The feast of St. Luke, patron saint of physicians, became a focal point of the new organization, introducing the celebration of a “White Mass” (referring to the physician’s white coat).

The Linacre Quarterly, a medical journal of the NFCPG, was initiated to inform physicians about how Catholic principles are applied to pertinent medical and scientific issues. It is named after Thomas Linacre, a Catholic priest and physician to King Henry VIII who also founded the Royal College of Physicians in England. The quarterly journal is a part of the ongoing educational effort by the Catholic Medical Association.

Gradually, the NFCPG increased in 1960 to 6,110 members in 92 member guilds established in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, growing to more than 10,000 members by 1967.

But the growth of the organization halted following the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, on July 25, 1968, with its teaching on morally appropriate means for regulating fertility, which became a very divisive issue among Catholics. It also became “a major turning point for the NFCPG at the time,” according to former CMA President Dr. Thomas Pitre.

Reform and Growth

The organization supported the encyclical, causing many members of the National Federation to leave, with only a small core group remaining, Pitre explained.

At this same time, Pitre was seeking like-minded physicians who “brought their faith into their personal practice of medicine” as he opened a practice in Oregon. But Oregon was also becoming “the first jurisdiction in the world to allow assisted suicide,” he recalled.

He decided to develop a Catholic physician’s group on the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest. When he sought help from the national organization, he realized that it was so diminished “that it didn’t have the administrative resources to do very much,” Pitre recalled.

Cardinal Francis George, who was archbishop of Portland, Ore., at that time, encouraged the formation of a Catholic physicians’ organization in the state, urging Pitre and his wife, Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, to get involved nationally.

As board members of the NFCPG, the Pitres helped to reconfigure the organization, its administration, bylaws, and everything necessary “to build the organization to a point where it could grow,” Pitre stated.

Newly ordained Bishop Robert Vasa of the Baker Diocese in eastern Oregon became episcopal advisor for the National Federation. “Bishop Vasa has become an incredibly powerful and encouraging influence,” Pitre said.

In 1997, the guild’s name was changed to the Catholic Medical Association, reflecting a membership consisting more of individuals than guilds.

Since 2006, with more than 50 new guilds created, the CMA has developed a closer working relationship with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have increased the staff and have a full-time director and medical ethicist, John Brehany.

Brehany explained that the CMA national office provides consultation on ethical topics to CMA members and tools that allow members to contact and support one another. Many of the guilds sponsor educational programs on a local basis, he said.

“The CMA strives to create a culture of life in health care by helping physicians and others to grow in their relationship to God, to learn and to teach Catholic medical ethics, and by finding new ways to serve the Church, the medical profession and society,” Brehany said.

It has become “a more significant influence in presenting Catholic health-care perspectives, keeping the debate front and center,” Pitre added. The CMA also tries to work with other Catholic organizations, including the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Catholic Health Association and others.

“The well-formed and conscientious Catholic physician literally brings the healing ministry of Christ to the workplace,” said Bishop Vasa. “Whether he or she works in a Catholic setting or in secular employment, they give witness to Christ and the values and virtues of the Church. I believe that these Catholic physicians … are the heart of Catholic health care. It is not possible for institutions to be Catholic unless the men and women who serve in them have at heart a commitment to something greater than the physical health of the patients entrusted to their care.”

So, besides the need for excellence in medical skill, Bishop Vasa stated, there must also be “a firm conviction about the value of the immortal soul and the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Without this conviction, “the care may be excellent, but if it does not ultimately benefit the soul of the suffering person, then something tremendously important has been lost,” he stressed. “The Catholic Church exists to bring people to Christ, to evangelize. This too is the ultimate purpose of Catholic institutions.”

Elenor Schoen writes

from Shoreline, Washington.


For more information on the CMA’s annual educational conference, visit: