Friar/bioethicist named to presidential commission

It just came to my attention that another well-known religious figure from NY, Dr. (and Brother) Daniel Sulmasy, has been appointed to Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Sulmasy is a Franciscan Friar, a religious brother, who was for a long time director of the Bioethics Institute of New York Medical College in Valhalla. He also held the Sisters of Charity Chair in Ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, the veritable Greenwich Village institution that is now closing most of its services.

tjndc5-5btpa448c41za9xtp1j_layoutSulmasy left New York last year for the Windy City, where he has a million titles at the University of Chicago.

He now holds the Kilbride-Clinton Chair in Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School and is associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

I interviewed Sulmasy several times. In 2006, I talked to him in his Valhalla office about getting an article published on spiritual care for the dying in the prestigious journal of the American Medical Association.

“I was surprised I got ‘God’ in the title,” he told me then.

Sulmasy was in favor of doctors acknowleding the spiritual or religious sides of their patients — when appropriate.

“I want to move away from a spirit of antagonism between medicine and spirituality to one of cooperation, but I don’t want a 21st-century shamanism,” he said. “MD doesn’t stand for medical deity.”

Another doctor said of Sulmasy: “He’s brought me a long way. It’s about recognizing that people are more than the sum of their parts.”

I haven’t talked to Sulmasy since he left town, but you have to wonder if his departure was due to the demise of Catholic health care in New York. New York Medical College, long a med school in the “Catholic tradition,” is being taken over by Touro College, an Orthodox Jewish institution. And old St. Vincent’s appears to be taking its final breaths.

Last year, Sulmasy wrote about the unraveling of Catholic health care in New York for America magazine. He wrote:


Personally, despite all the obstacles, I continue to be convinced that Catholic institutions (and, in particular, Catholic hospitals) are worth fighting to save. Catholic institutions help to nourish the faith of those who work in them and are served by them. Our Catholic hospitals also provide a vehicle for proving that our moral convictions are compatible with 21st-century technology, and they embody the ideal that service institutions ought to have service missions.


Archbishop Dolan wasn’t too happy about it either.

Sulmasy may well have his hands full in taking a seat on the presidential commission. The Obama administration has very different views on certain things than does the Catholic Church.

But Sulmasy knows the minefields of bioethics as well as anyone.

He says: “The rapid pace of technological progress assures us that these sorts of questions will continue to surface in clinical practice. Ethics, as the most practical branch of philosophy, must be prepared to keep pace with these challenges.”

That being said, he once told me: “Being a friar is what I am. Being a medical practitioner is what I do.”

New York Medical College to ‘convert’

New York Medical College in Valhalla has been a Catholic institution since 1978, run by the Archdiocese of New York.

But this is about to change.

The college is being taken over by Touro College, an Orthodox Jewish institution with several campuses, including in NYC.

The Journal News/LoHud wrote months ago that Touro was in serious talks to take over the medical school. The new issue of Catholic New York says the deal is done and that the transfer will take place in mid-2010.

The archdiocese gets $60 million — “approximately $30 million of which the Archdiocese will immediately contribute to a fund for NYMC’s business, operations and programs, with the remainder deposited in an endowment fund that will be used exclusively for the Archdiocese’s health care programs for those in need,” according to CNY.

The CNY story does not mention what will happen to NYMC’s Catholic mission. But we will ask today.

When we wrote about the possibility of the takeover, we heard from dozens of NYMC students who were not happy about the possibility. They viewed Touro as a step down in terms of quality. It remains to be seen how students and faculty react.

New York’s Catholic hospitals disappearing (with little notice)

“In 2007 there were eight Catholic acute care hospitals in New York City. By the end of 2008 there was only one.”

This is the opening line of an article in America magazine by Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a Franciscan brother who holds the Sisters of Charity Chair of Ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan and is professor of medicine and director of the Bioethics Institute of New York Medical College in Valhalla.

A real grabber of a lead.

In the article — entitled “Then There Was One: The Unraveling of Catholic Health Care” — Sulmasy explains one of the most overlooked changes in Catholic life in New York. I mean, how many Catholic New Yorkers are even vaguely aware that Catholic hospitals have been falling like a row of dominoes?

The one left, by the way, is Sulmasy’s: St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan.

Sulmasy delves into the complex factors that have undermined Catholic health care, such as weak Catholic philanthropy. He writes: “It is a great irony: Catholics complain that they do not influence culture, but when they have the resources to make a difference, they tend not to support the institutions that can achieve influence.”

Strong stuff.

He also cites 1950s-style Catholic parochialism in the running of Catholic institutions. Not to mention poor political connections.

And he blames weak Catholic leadership: “It seems that in the current ecclesiastical climate, one succeeds not by one’s accomplishments but by not making mistakes.”

Sulmasy also suggests that Catholics are less interested in preserving Catholic institutions and are quite happy making use of quality, secular hospitals. He laments this shift: “Excellence and compassion are not antithetical. Catholic institutions can offer both in a truly distinctive way.”

In the end, he calls for fighting to save Catholic institutions, including hospitals: “Catholic institutions help to nourish the faith of those who work in them and are served by them.”

It’s ironic that New York Medical College, a medical school that describes itself as being “in the Catholic tradition” and where Sulmasy plays important roles, may soon be taken over by a non-Catholic college.