ST. CHARLES, Ill. — What is the Catholic solution to the economic crisis in America, Europe and the rest of the developed world?

Have more children.

So said Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, head of the Institute for Works of Religion (Vatican Bank), in a recent op-ed piece for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Developed nations, specifically European countries, the United States and Japan, have aging populations and fewer and fewer children to support them: “The ever-increasing percentage of people who retire from their productive phase becomes a fixed cost which is impossible to absorb and sustain by those who produce.”

Besides the need for greater austerity, the only real hope for graying nations, he said, is for a reversal in plummeting birthrates: “Children are the engine of economic recovery.”

Many parents cite financial concerns as their chief reason for not wanting additional children; others are influenced by the social stigma that comes with having a large family. (Witness in England, for example, when British soccer star David Beckham and wife Victoria welcomed their fourth child into the world this summer: It raised the ire of environmentalists, liberal politicians and media figures who accused them of being selfish with the world’s resources.)

But some couples are choosing to go against the trend and are welcoming and embracing the gift of human life with which God has blessed their marriages. While the challenges are many, the blessings are far greater, they say, so long as they maintain a strong faith in God, work hard and accept the sacrifices required of their vocation.

Eileen Heaton, age 79, of St. Charles, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, married husband Vince 58 years ago. Regarding children, Eileen said, the couple decided to “leave it all in God’s hands, confident that he would provide us with the means to take care of however many children he sent.”

Eileen’s husband, at age 83, died on May 3. Three hundred mourners attended his funeral, including all of the couple’s 15 children and their 46 grandchildren.

“He was a wonderful man — selfless and patient,” Eileen recalled. “He taught our children the importance of integrity and to always seek out the truth.”

The Heatons’ 15 children range in age from late 30s to 57.  All, with the possible exception of one, have stayed active in the Church. All are successful professionals; most are college graduates.

Always Something to Wash

But, when the kids were small, there were many challenges. “Every day I got up and begged God for the graces to do the right thing,” Heaton said. “I took it one day at a time.”

Laundry was one of the greatest trials. With 15 kids, there was always something to wash.
Vince was an accountant and computer-systems analyst, and he worked part time in convenience stores to make ends meet. During his professional career, in fact, he held 16 different part-time jobs, in addition to his full-time career and continuing-education studies.

The Heatons were disciplined in the practice of their faith; children were always expected to go to Mass and pray with the family. Additionally, they had family rules which had to be observed.  Girls going out on dates, for example, were expected to be home on time. 

One time, Eileen recalled, a young man was late in returning with her daughter. Eileen waited in the driveway in her housedress. When the car pulled up, she told her daughter to go inside.  She then told the man, to his great surprise, “Never call my daughter again.”

“And my family accepted that, and never challenged us,” she said.

She often experienced social condemnation when people became aware of how many children she had. She recalled that once, when she worked a part-time job, a co-worker called her a “polluter” and accused her of overpopulating the world. She challenged the man, arguing that countries needed more children and suggesting he research the issue himself. He later apologized.

Another critic was a teacher of one of her sons at a Catholic school who angrily asked, “How dare you [have such a large family]?” Eileen’s patient response was, “Even with one child, how dare I? With God’s help, we can do anything.”

The teacher offered Eileen an unspoken apology of sorts a month later, appearing at her doorstep unannounced one evening offering to tutor her academically struggling son. Eileen reflected, “Had I gotten angry, I would have lost her.”

Eileen’s children, too, experienced ridicule at school when word got out that they came from such a large family.

About six years after they were married, the Heatons participated in a “post-Cana” retreat for married couples, but were disappointed that the retreat centered on techniques for limiting childbirth rather than spirituality. She asked the priest leading the retreat, “Father, why don’t you talk about faith in God?”

The priest responded that it was not the purpose of the retreat. The Heatons went home early.  Eileen explained, “We had things to do; we didn’t have the time to waste.”

No Apologies

Vince suffered from dementia in his final years, and his illness took away the “handsomeness” and expressiveness in his face, Eileen related. It was similar to the effect Parkinson’s disease had on Pope John Paul II’s face in his final years, she noted. Believing it to be a mark of sanctity, as Vince was dying, the “handsomeness” returned to his face, and he died a peaceful death.  She said, “Other people witnessed this as well.”

She concluded, “Vince and I raised each of our children as individuals, and never lost one. And we always had a strong faith that God would help us. Whether you’re raising 15 children or one, you need a strong faith in God.”

Patrick Madrid, age 51, and wife Nancy, age 50, of Granville, Ohio (near Columbus), have been married for 30 years and have 11 children and 12 grandchildren. Patrick has supported the family for the past quarter century as a Catholic apologist, writing books and giving talks on the faith at parishes and conferences.

Madrid was one of eight children himself, and he and Nancy wanted “a lot of kids, but we never had in mind how much ‘a lot’ was.”

They experienced all the typical challenges parents have in rearing children, educating them and teaching them the faith, teaching them manners and, of course, paying for them. 

“With us, finances were always tight, but God always provided,” Madrid said. “With each new child, we managed. We never had a sense that we’d passed a threshold.”

For Madrid, one of the most thrilling things about being a parent has been “getting to know each child, like watching a flower unfold.”

The children range in age from 10 to 30; six of the grown children have left home, and five have married. The oldest, in fact, already has six children. Madrid is especially pleased that all have married well and each has remained active in the Church.

Like Eileen Heaton, Madrid has experienced the “looks of scorn” in public from those who disapprove of his family size, as well as the snide comments: Are you finished yet? Don’t you have a television? Are you crazy?

He remembers one conversation he had with a woman years ago while waiting in line at a store.  When she found out how many children he had, she accused him of consuming too many of the Earth’s resources.

Another on the Way

When he counsels his own children on getting married and starting a family, he says: 1) Don’t waste your time with recreational dating. Look instead for a Catholic spouse who shares your belief in God and the Catholic faith. And don’t expect to convert a non-Catholic, as they usually won’t. 2) Actively seek God’s will for your marriage, rather than being merely open to what he sends. 3)  Be open to the gift of life. God knows best.

Like Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, Madrid is concerned about the contraceptive mentality that has permeated the developed world. Birthrates in some countries, he noted, have “reached the point of no return,” leading to only two unpleasant possibilities: 1) heavy influxes of younger workers from Third World countries, often Muslim, to support aging populations which change the national character of those countries, and 2) the “right to die” will become the “obligation to die,” as the unproductive elderly will be viewed as wasting precious resources and pressured to commit suicide. He added, “I don’t know when that will be, but I think I’ll live to see it.”

After Lora and Gustavo Garcia of Glendora, Calif., near Pasadena, had their fourth child, family and friends told them they had had enough and that they should consider surgical sterilization.  The couple had mixed feelings about it and sought advice. They picked up some solid Catholic literature from the Catholic Resource Center in Covina and came to believe that contraception and sterilization were grave sins, as the Church teaches.

Gustavo, age 42 and married 21 years, said, “We knew what we had to do. We couldn’t listen to the world. We had to be open to life.”

He added, “Our perspective began to change. Instead of looking for ways to prevent having children, we began asking, ‘What does God want from us now?’”

Their fifth child was soon born, and the couple never looked back. Today, they have 10 children, ages 1 to 20, with another on the way. Finances have always been a challenge, but, as Gustavo said, “God has always provided. We have come to depend on God and focus on doing his will in our lives.”

He concluded, “At the end of the day, it has been rewarding. We’ve learned a lot from our kids.  Their personalities are so different. I can’t imagine what our lives would be like without each one of them.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.