The Catholic Medical Association has seen "steady growth" in membership, providing fellowship for Catholic medical professionals as conscience rights and religious freedom are increasingly threatened.

"We've become more effective at witnessing in the world," said John Brehany, the group's executive director. "It's a great organization, full of great people, who are trying to live their faith."

"One of the purposes of the CMA is to assist the Church in communicating medical ethics and the Church's teaching on life and love within the medical profession and within society at large," Brehany told CNA June 18. "We strive to be of assistance to the Church whenever we can."

The association's local chapters are present in 31 states and over 70 dioceses. Membership at the national level has almost doubled in the past seven years, while the number of chapters has increased from eight to 75 in the same time period.

"Our goal is to get one chapter, at least, in every diocese of the U.S.," Brehany said. "We provide opportunities for our members to connect on a local level."

Guilds host talks and organize service opportunities and socials. They provide mutual support and help their members know "that there are other good people out there in the field who are trying to live the Catholic faith."

The Catholic Medical Association was founded in the 1930s and reached a high point in the 1960s. Since then, declines in Mass attendance and Catholic school enrollment have had a negative impact on membership.

The association has about 2,000 national members, and many chapters have local members who attend an annual White Mass for health care professionals or other events.

"Anybody who wants to help integrate Catholic principles into healthcare can join at some level," Brehany said.

Active and retired physicians are the primary members. However, associate membership is open to dentists, podiatrists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and others with doctoral degrees.

Affiliate membership is open to nurses, students, seminarians, clergy and religious, and other friends and supporters of the association and its mission.

The association's national conference provides members "a unique experience of faith and fellowship and education," Brehany said.

The conference provides spiritual sustenance such as daily Mass, confession, Eucharistic adoration and scheduled rosaries. Conference talks often focus on ethical issues in medicine, and fulfill continuing education requirements necessary for attendees to renew their medical licenses.

The Catholic Medical Association publishes the ethics journal Linacre Quarterly, which according to Brehany is the oldest U.S. journal dedicated to ethics in medicine.

This June, the association has a four-day "boot camp" in Philadelphia for medical students. The gathering provides opportunities for prayer, study and fellowship, and helps prepare students to defend their faith and to "grow to be solid Catholic caregivers."

Brehany said the Catholic Medical Association is particularly important in light of present trends.

"Probably one of the biggest battles of our day, going on as we speak, is an attack on religious freedom and also conscience rights," he said.

He said conscience rights in health care "just never have been adequately protected."

Especially since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, those with "an ideology hostile to life" have tried to force doctors to perform abortions and sterilizations and to force students to be trained in these procedures, Brehany said.

"They haven't gone away. They've gotten even more powerful – even more determined – to enforce these things," he said. "People get this pressure. Sometimes it is concerted and planned."

Other times, this pressure comes from a cultural atmosphere that holds that the role of the doctor is "to give the patient what she wants."

"That's not ever what doctors thought, especially when it comes to doing abortion, and yet we see those attacks coming more and more."

He said there is no official litmus test on these issues to get into medical school or to advance in a career, "but there are these subtle pressures all the time to go along with our relativist culture, and that is a challenge."

The Catholic Medical Association is also engaged in the broader fight to defend religious freedom.

Several dozen association members have spoken at religious freedom rallies sponsored by the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Coalition.

The association is encouraging its members to participate in the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom, observed June 21-July 4, to support the U.S. bishops' opposition to the federal contraception mandate.

The mandate would require employers, including many Catholic organizations, to provide access to insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including abortifacient drugs.

"We're trying to get our doctors involved in local events and in local rallies, so they can help to explain to people why conscience rights and religious freedom are so important in medicine," Brehany said. "They are important for the doctors and health care professionals who offer care, but they are important as well for patients who receive that care."

He said the relationship between a physician and a patient is "at the heart of medicine" and often involves trying to meet a patient's emotional and spiritual challenges as well.

He said the association has "great concern" about the extent to which the government is "taking more and more dictatorial control over medicine," especially in its control over what services are provided or not.

"We are afraid that they will be either ordering people to do things that violate their conscience, or to withhold treatments that are really of benefit to the patient."

Brehany encouraged Catholic medical professionals to "band together for mutual support," to know their rights, and to use the resources of the Catholic Medical Association.

"Catholics really have to stick together and give a unified, compelling, really nationwide interest."