Theodore Hesburgh, the late president of Notre Dame back when Notre Dame was a Catholic school, famously said: "The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." This may be one of the most important truths anyone has ever uttered about the institution of the family and how it functions. And like most important truths, especially those pertaining to love and marriage, it is studiously ignored these days.

In our culture, spouses tend to act as though their love for each other and their love for their kids are two completely distinct and independent things. A man will often think that he can betray his vows and treat his wife like garbage, yet still provide “love” to his kids. Many women operate under the same sort of delusion. “Kids, I’m leaving your mother and moving in with the secretary, but I still love you,” he assures them.

Does he? How?

I thought about this problem when I read a particularly disgusting piece of divorce-glamorizing and infidelity-romanticizing in The New York Times. The family unit isn't falling apart fast enough to suit the elites in media and Hollywood, apparently, so they do what they can to hasten the process with this sort of garbage.

"An Optimist's Guide To Divorce," written by a proud homewrecker named Elizabeth Covington, tells the story of the author’s relationship with "Josh.” Elizabeth met Josh — married with two daughters — at a bar on Josh's 12th wedding anniversary. Shortly, the two began sleeping with each other. Elizabeth knew Josh was married, but, she says, he’s a great guy and totally "not a cheater" (despite, you know, the cheating). He's a fine husband, too, but he just doesn't feel the "passion" in his marriage anymore. Poor Josh is "miserable," despite his privileged life and his gorgeous and faithful wife and two beautiful daughters. The only remedy for this misery, he decides, is to tear his family apart limb from limb.

Elizabeth and Josh determined that they must "do what it takes to be together" even if it means "inflicting undeserved pain on others" (her words). When faced with a choice between the mild discomfort of suppressing their physical desires, or burdening an innocent woman and two small children with life-shattering grief and despair, they chose the latter. A couple of humanitarians, these two.

So, Josh left his wife, shacked up with Elizabeth, et cetera and so on. It's a gross and tragic tale, but not a unique one. We all know how it goes and how it will end: with Josh helplessly watching his "passion" for Elizabeth drain away after 18 months, and eventually leaving her in ruins, too. For Elizabeth, it will be what the Buddhist calls Karma and what the Christian calls reaping what you sow.

The reason I'm citing this story as an example is that Elizabeth repeatedly claims both she and Josh "love his children more than anything." She returns to this theme again and again, insisting that Josh may have thrown his wife overboard and left his kids in the dust, all in the pursuit of a more exciting sex life, but he still loves them. The only thing Elizabeth doesn't explain is how loving someone could ever involve “inflicting undeserved pain” on them.

Allow me to offer my own explanation:

It doesn't.

Josh doesn't "love his children more than anything." There is no evidence, based on the information provided, that he loves his kids at all. Many parents are given automatic credit for "loving" their kids even as they treat those beloved offspring like accessories to, and burdens on, their self-centered lives. Parents may have moments, even many moments, where they feel a deep affection for their children, but if that affection is not consistently expressed through action and sacrifice, then it isn’t love. Those parents love their kids in about the same way they love the family dog — maybe less.

I can’t measure Josh’s fatherly love, or lack there of. But I can say for certain that his love for his children is not the first priority in his life. It’s clear that Josh has ordered his love in the same way that many of us order it. What Josh loves more than anything is himself. That’s why he’s so willing to toss everyone in his life to the side for the sake of “following his heart” and “finding happiness.” In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that he primarily loves, not himself, but the idea of himself being happy. Men who cheat on their wives generally loathe themselves (not without reason), but they loathe their families even more, and they care far more about their own happiness than they do anyone else’s.

Only after their own desires have been met do the Joshes of the world prioritize their kids. So, when an unfaithful man abandons his family while claiming, insanely, “I love my kids more than anything,” what he means to say is, “I love my kids more than anything besides my own pleasure and sexual fulfillment.” But this is a fatally wrong approach on two levels. Not only because he puts himself over his kids, but because he puts his kids over his wife.

Even if it were true that he “loved his kids more than anything,” which obviously he doesn't, he would still be far off the mark and his family would still be in danger of imminent collapse. Here we refer back to the quote at the beginning. If we really love our kids, then we ought to love our wives first. God should, of course, reign over our families, but there ought to be no human on Earth whom we love more than, or prioritize over, our wives.

The love between husband and wife, consecrated by God, serves as the foundation of a properly ordered family. Their love literally gives birth to their children. As the kids grow older, they will depend upon that love and look to it for comfort, security, and direction. Husband and wife were there before the kids existed, and, if they honor their vows and stay alive and healthy, they’ll be there together long after the kids have moved out and started their own families. If spouses put their kids first, what do they do before the kids are born, and what will they do after they leave? And anyway, how can it be proper and right to love a child more than you love the person who gave you that child?

There’s a reason why our country is filled with insecure and narcissistic kids who need to be the center of attention at all times. They come from disordered families where both parents fawn and fuss over them, while neglecting each other. The kids, despite the attention and the toys and the nice vacations and all the rest of it, still end up feeling unsettled and vulnerable. They have everything in the world except for the stabilizing force of a mother and father who love each other actively and obviously, which is to say they have a lot of stuff they do not need but they do not have the one thing they do.

Everything in a family hinges on and depends upon the love between the mother and father. The family lives or dies by it. We may gain some emotional benefit from spoiling our kids, but what they need — what gives them the greatest benefit — is to see a father who honors his wife and a mother who respects her husband. One way or another, whether we like or not, they will learn far more about love from observing us than they will from the hugs and kisses we heap on them.

So is it possible for a man to “love his kids” while he tosses his marital vows in the dumpster and treats his children’s mother like a busted old car to be traded in and replaced with a newer model?

Not in the way that counts the most. Not in the way the child needs.