PHOTO BY DAVID CHRISTOPHER, COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO MEDICAL CENTER
He's a medical doctor, a
Ph.D. in ethics and a
Franciscan brother. He's
Daniel P. Sulmasy, an
articulate bridge between
medicine and theology. He's
often consulted by other doctors and
the media as an expert on controversial
biomedical decisions, such as end-of-life
care and stem-cell research.
Last November, Dr. Sulmasy, long
associated with St. Vincent's Hospital in
Manhattan, took up a new position at
the University of Chicago: Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and
Ethics in the Department of Medicine
and Divinity School. He's also associate
director of the MacLean Center for
He's a native of Queens, New York,
and a member of the Holy Name
Province of Franciscan Friars based in
New York. He now lives at St. Joseph Friary
in the Hyde Park neighborhood of
Previously, he served as director of
the Center for Clinical Bioethics, as
senior research scholar of the Kennedy
Institute of Ethics and as an associate
professor of medicine at Georgetown
At a ceremony formally welcoming
him to his new position in Chicago, Dr.
Sulmasy commented: "In bridging theology
and medicine, this newly created
endowed chair links two of the
three traditional medieval professions,
invoking the spirit of the university
that prevailed in the days when friars
such as Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus,
William of Ockham and Roger Bacon
first taught at the universities of Paris
He will be launching the University
of Chicago's combined degree program
in ethics, offering medical students
both a medical degree and a doctorate
in ethics, along with a one- to two-year
fellowship in ethics after medical
training. "Our programs will be for doctors
who have an abiding interest in
ethics, or for medical students who
were philosophy or theology majors,"
he says. "Through experience and training,
people often become interested in
the myriad of questions that face doctors,
such as when to discontinue a
ventilator and what to do about embryonic
Dr. Sulmasy is editor-in-chief of the
prestigious journal Theoretical Medicine
and Bioethics. He has written or co-edited
four books: The Healer's Calling,
Methods in Medical Ethics, The Rebirth of
the Clinic and A Balm for Gilead: Meditations
on Spirituality and the Healing
He has also contributed to this magazine
and been a medical ethics expert
for American Catholic Radio, produced
by St. Anthony Messenger Press for the
U.S. bishops' Catholic Communications
Campaign. In March he was a
speaker at the Franciscan University of
Steubenville's Institute of Bioethics conference
for health-care professionals,
speaking on "Appropriate Responses
to Different Types of Suffering at the
End of Life."
As a doctor and a teacher of doctors,
Dr. Sulmasy is well-positioned to affect
the future of health care. The fact that
he's also a Franciscan gives him a
unique perspective. He was interviewed
by St. Anthony Messenger last December
A Doctor and a Franciscan Brother
Q. How do you balance your life as a
Franciscan brother with your medical
A. It's not the easiest thing in the world.
One of my minor proofs for the existence of God is that two of the most
conservative organizations known to
humankind—medicine and the Catholic
Church—have had to compromise
on my behalf for all of this to happen.
Somehow it works.
For instance, within this friary and
anywhere I have been, I can give the
morning to the friary and the evening
to the hospital or vice versa.
In most cases it works better to have
the morning in the friary. In terms of
time with community for community
prayer, we have Mass and morning
prayer, with morning meditation. I read
the newspaper and do my exercises.
That is all in the friary.
Then I go off to work, which takes a
long time. I don't arrive at work until
9:00. That is late for a doctor to get to
work, so I wind up staying later. Most
days of the week, I miss evening prayer
with the community. I say night prayer
myself. I wind up eating leftovers from
the dinner the community ate, but I'm
grateful there are leftovers.
It's a big enough community that
I'm rarely alone. There is always someone
who comes in from an evening
ministry or someone who will sit down
and eat with me even to have a snack
at 8:30 or 9:00 at night.
Thursday is a community night. I
come home on Thursdays for evening
prayer. We have Mass together, dinner
and then some kind of house chapter
or a little talk on Franciscan spirituality.
It's been a busy day, but this is how
I balance things—and it works.
Q. Are there conflicts besides the
number of hours in the day?
A. Besides the time, no. I think being a
friar and being a physician go together
like air and lungs. Some of the first
work of friars was working with lepers.
This is central to the kinds of things
that the friars have done for centuries.
It may be a little more scientifically
sophisticated today, but I think it's the
Q. Do you have much of an individual
practice or is it mostly teaching?
A. I have a small individual practice,
one half-day a week. Since I've moved
to the University of Chicago, my practice
is at a clinic for the underserved in
the South Side of Chicago. It is staffed
by the University of Chicago faculty.
Q. Are there places where being a
Franciscan benefits your work?
A. I think being a Franciscan benefits
everything that any friar does. It brings
a sense of my rootedness in being a
friar and my Franciscan spirituality
to patient care, teaching and research.
I think it informs almost everything
It's all for the positive to the extent
I can live the Peace Prayer of St. Francis.
A doctor who lives that and brings
it to the practice of medicine is doing
something significant. Do I measure
up to that prayer on a daily basis? No.
But I aspire to it; I aspire to be moved
by that sowing of hope, bringing love
to the care of patients. All of that is
central to what it means to be a friar.
Q. With your new professorship and
with ethics, what are you most concerned
that the medical students
learn from you?
A. In a certain sense I can teach them
a lot of theory about ethics. But being
able to analyze the ethics of a case is
very good, but insufficient. Lots of people
can do that. Certainly, I do, and it is necessary for the students to know
how to analyze a case.
More importantly, the best teaching
in medicine is role modeling—to the
extent that students can learn from me
the attitudes that are proper to have
toward patients, namely, to be respectful
toward patients, to be dedicated to
their care, to be humble about the limits
of medicine and their own limits as
human beings, to really have love for
patients in the gospel sense of agape (Greek for "altruistic love").
If they can learn that from me, then
it is more important than any physiology
or theoretical ethics I can teach
Q. How has the medical profession
evolved since you earned your M.D.
at Cornell in 1982?
A. It is amazing. Hippocrates once said,
"Life is short; the art is long." Life seems
to get shorter and the art gets longer
every day. The things that have happened
are just astounding. In 1982, the
beginning of the AIDS epidemic, we
hadn't discovered the virus yet. Lyme
disease had not been discovered and
named. There were no effective treatments
Technology accelerates at a faster
and faster pace. In 1982 nobody talked
about stem cells. No one was doing
surgery with a laparoscope. It is
astounding the kinds of things that
keep happening. I don't see the pace of
technological progress stopping in the
Q. Were there CAT scans or MRIs?
A. There were CAT scans but no MRIs.
Q. Think of all the invasive surgeries
that were performed because we
didn't have those diagnostic tools!
A. When I graduated from Cornell Medical
School, ulcers were thought to be
caused by stress. People were still getting
surgery for them, getting part of
their stomach removed and having the
vagus nerve cut. Then we moved to an
era with very effective treatments to
decrease acid production. Now beyond
that, we have discovered it is an infectious
disease and with antibiotics we
can cure people's ulcers.
Q. What would you call the most
hopeful signs in medicine today?
A. It's a sort of mixed bag. As the technology has improved and gotten more
sophisticated, ironically, patients, professionals
and physicians are feeling
more and more alienated from medicine.
All the machines get in the way of
the interaction, the really deeply
human interaction between the physician
and the patient.
It has gotten to the point where it is
beginning to turn around. Both patients
and physicians are feeling that so much
has been lost, that there is a great hopeful
sign of increased interest in spirituality
in medicine. They realize that as
technology has gotten better, the spiritual
and interpersonal aspects of health
care have diminished. I see this
groundswell of interest in spirituality
and health care, which is very hopeful.
Q. What drew you to medicine in
the first place?
A. Complex story: When I was in high
school, I was very interested in ecology.
I thought I was going to be an ecologist,
a biologist doing ecological research. By
the time I was a senior, I had decided
that I didn't want to spend all my life
doing science. I had too much of an
interest in working with people and I
also thought I had a vocation. I thought
I would go to a secular college in the
1970s and figure out where all this was
It was while I was at Cornell University
that I first got the idea that I
might be able to combine my interest
in science and serving people with a
religious vocation. Medicine has always
been for me a way of living the vocation
I had perceived at an early age. It
would be a way to use some of my scientific
talents toward the service of
people, eventually as a friar.
Q. Were there any medical figures or
organizations that you most admired
or inspired you?
A. There are no physicians in my family.
While I was a medical student, I
began to read the writings of Edmund
Pellegrino. He's considered by many
to be the father of modern medical
ethics. He started writing about medical
ethics in the 1950s. I was very taken by
his writings and thought, This is the
man I most want to be like.
I actually got a chance as a medical
resident to meet him. I found out that
he was genuine. It wasn't just all writing.
I discovered that he was a towering
intellect, a supreme clinician, a good
and kind person who thought deeply
about ethical questions in medicine.
He eventually became my mentor.
I was able to start studies while at
Johns Hopkins with Dr. Pellegrino, who
was working at Georgetown. He eventually
became my dissertation mentor.
When I moved to my first faculty position
at Georgetown, he became my
boss. Now he is a close friend and colleague:
a man whose big, big shoes I
barely fit my feet into.
Q. Were you influenced by legendary
doctors like Tom Dooley or organizations
like Physicians Without Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders?
A. There is no heroic physician who
inspires my medicine. It is more about
St. Francis embracing the leper. That is
the sort of way in which I'm inspired to
be a physician.
Q. With medicine being such a stressful
profession, what coping strategies
have worked best for you?
A. I don't know how anybody can get
through medicine without a prayer life.
When I was an intern and working so
hard, all I could manage was to do
what hundreds of thousands of
patients, their families and hospital
staff do when they enter the main
entrance of Johns Hopkins Hospital:
touch the big toe of the 15-foot statue
of Christ in the main lobby. I'd touch
it and say, "God, get me through
In many ways, a prayer like that can
be as powerful as two hours of meditation.
Because, I think, God wants our
I have more time these days and I'm
able to be more reflective on the experience.
Poet T.S. Eliot said, "We had the experience
and missed the meaning." I think
it is very true for physicians. We have
incredibly deep encounters with Christ
in the work we do on a daily basis. All
of us do. Too few have the chance or
give ourselves the opportunity to reflect
Typically, at the end of the day, during
my night prayer I'm grateful to
God for the opportunities I've had to
serve people and to prayerfully remember
those I've served during the
day. That keeps me focused and balanced.
Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of this