This article appeared in the February 2008 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Return to Feb 2008 edition of CMQ

A Guild by any other Name?

There is a strong feeling within the Guild at present that the time has come for another change of its title. At its foundation in 1911 it was dedicated to the three doctors of antiquity, ‘The Guild of Saint Luke and Saints Cosmas and Damian’. Later it was felt that in a largely secular society a more descriptive title was necessary and in 1972 the current title was adopted.

Whenever a major name change to an organisation is contemplated a look at its origins is always worthwhile. Michael Straiton, the Guild’s historian, recently presented an excellent summary in the Quarterly.

Catholic doctors in the early decades of the 20th century had felt the need to establish a Catholic medical society but the opportunity came in a strange way with the foundation of  the ‘Catholic Boys Brigade’  Its function was to maintain the welfare of the boys after they had left Catholic elementary schools.  Girls presumably were capable of looking after themselves.  There arose an urgent need for doctors to serve with the Brigade. The problem was to identify doctors to whom one could apply for help but at that time Catholic doctors were largely unknown to the public and only rarely acquainted with one another.

Surgeon General Thomas Maunsell C.B.,Ll.D., helped to resolve the problem by founding the Guild as a body in which Catholic doctors could assist each other and serve other institutions. Maunsell was a hardy old soldier who had served with distinction in India and Burma in 1895, and retired when Principal Medical Officer Malta in 1899.

On 21st October 1911 the Guild was established. Mass was offered in Westminster Cathedral for its success and there were twenty founding members. Its objective was to constitute a brotherhood of Catholic members of the medical profession in this country and to discuss medical questions in the light of the Christian revelation. The first Great War naturally impeded its growth but by the AGM of 1920 membership has risen to 288.  Between the wars and immediately afterwards the Guild became firmly established in most of the leading cities with three branches in the London area.  The Annual Symposia, at which prominent speakers were invited to discuss current medical issues, rotated from branch to branch. Local dignitaries, including the mayor and the diocesan Bishop were invited and everyone had a great time.  

But in the 1960’s with the beginning of the liberal revolution (as Jonathan Sacks points out)(1) ‘ its end result was the belief that  morality could no longer be thought of as the code of a  society. It was the choice of individuals’. Bio-ethics became the current medical problem as the result of continuing advances in medical science. Members were confused and looking for guidance. The Linacre Centre was established at the instigation of Cardinal Heenan. The Guild was fortunate in having Jonathan Gould, a distinguished psychiatrist as Master at that time, who felt that the Guild needed to play a greater visible part in the national life. His writings and social functions ensured that it became better known to the Catholic Hierarchy and other organisations. A most active group of Council members were stimulated by his views. Active collaboration was established with the Linacre centre and some members even became governors. The Guild was registered as a charity and an independent office funded. During the various abortion debates in parliament members independently lobbied MPs and sometimes Ministers. Stronger co-operation took place with European and international Catholic groups. The Guild had arrived and was consulted and admired by other similar groups.

Membership was at its peak of 1000 around 20 years ago. Today it is just over 500. With a possible estimate of 5,000 Catholic doctors in the country it is thought that membership should be much higher. But when it is considered that only 20% of Catholic school leavers now practise the faith there are possibly too many nominal Catholic Doctors. Equally many, searching for solutions to some of the more poignant problems in their practice, find the ethics espoused by the Guild as difficult. Would a change of title encourage them to join? 

Many say that the current title is out of keeping with a modern society. Officers should not be Masters but rather presidents or chairpersons. ‘Association’ seems to be the favoured term to replace Guild. In addition, if ‘association’ is accepted, other medical professionals would be able to join thus promoting a more effective body.  Perhaps (like the BMA) craft groups could be formed with a council mainly composed of doctors.  It has been proposed that other medical professionals could be elected as members only with no rights to be appointed as officers. This would be an apartheid solution and cause much friction in later years.

But a Guild is not just a medieval tile with no structure. There are at least 20 Guilds listed in the Telephone Directory ranging from Air Pilots and Navigators and International Toastmasters to Master Victualers and Estate Agents. It may be we are in a most illustrious group. Guild implies mutual support, with exclusivity, shared knowledge and mastery. ‘Association’ implies an organised group.

In the medical hierarchy the doctor still has the ultimate responsibility and makes the final decision in whatever clinical decision arises. If this is correct a group of Catholic doctors assembled for the purpose of assessing and advising on a bioethical problem is a powerful advantage. It could well seek the assistance of other health professionals in certain situations as technical and legal advice is necessary for any body. Indeed the council meets only three or four times a year and now only for one day; to enlarge it without due cause seems to be premature.

If the other Catholic groups wish to have broader representation the Catholic Union would welcome them. This was the purpose for its foundation; to liaise between Catholic organisations and the government.  In this connection it is notable how many members of the Guild are in the Union and in senior positions.

Benedict XVI recently said in his state of the world address ‘New discoveries or technological progress should not require people to choose between science and morality; rather they should be obliged to a moral use of science’

In the current multicultural age this may well be the awesome responsibility of the Guild of Catholic Doctors to debate and defend.

The full results of the plebiscite have been distributed by Email as the details are too large for inclusion in the CMQ. Briefly out of 507 voting members who were sent questionnaires 233 members responded to the question re the option of permitting local branches to change the title of officers on an individual basis and whether the name of the Guild should be changed.  

175 members were in favour of individual change on the branches, 26 members wanted individual and universal change; 8 members were unsure and 24 wanted to retain the current titles universally. The vote in favour of change of the name of the Guild was 130 in favour, 21 with no strong views and 82 opposed to any change.  


  1. 1. Jonathan Sacks.  The Home we Build Together.  Continuum UK, The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London, SE1 7NX