Amoris Laetitia, the most anticipated apostolic exhortation in history, is like a novel that begins in crackling fashion, with brisk and even lyrical prose. The plot deepens; the characters develop; the tension builds. Themes weave together as subplots strain toward the unknown end. And then … crash. It begins to unravel and entire sections falter.

There’s a concerted push at the end to wrap it up nicely, but the damage is done.

Many, I’m sure, will think otherwise. Of course, we’re talking about perhaps the longest papal text of all time, with 60,000 words and over 250 pages long. There is plenty to discuss and debate.

That said, I am not someone expecting, as does Cardinal Walter Kasper, “a reform that will make the Church turn a page after 1700 years,” nor am I someone who sees heresy and apostasy in every word of the Holy Father. My occasional criticisms of Francis have focused more on his rhetorical excesses and hyperbolic approach to various matters.

I do think that Francis has invested much papal capital into making some sort of changes — pastorally, without a doubt — for those who are in irregular marriages (or what the exhortation calls “irregular” situations, with quotation marks, as if they really aren’t, for some reason, actually irregular).

That investment is evident in this text, which is where the story weakens and crumbles.

But, first, the brisk and even lyrical prose. A good example is found in a description of the family around the table, at the center of which is “the father and mother, a couple with their personal story of love. They embody the primordial divine plan clearly spoken of by Christ himself: ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?’ (Mt 19:4)”

Francis’ opening reflection on the theological foundations of family and marriage is often beautiful, profound and challenging. I am especially taken with how, in drawing on Scripture and the thought of John Paul II, he emphasizes that the “couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon — not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue — capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour”

Francis highlights the Trinitarian roots of the Church’s rich vision of marriage, noting “the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love”.

The first four chapters present varying but complementary visions of marriage. Marriage, the pope says, is a gift from God, and thus needs to be guarded closely. It is not “a social convention,” “empty ritual,” or “merely the outward sign of a commitment”; rather, it is a sacrament for “for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses,” a representation of Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church.

Marriage, Francis says, is ordered toward conjugal love, and is a participation in grace, the very life of God, in which we grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. There’s a marvelous section on the relationship between those called to virginity and those with a vocation to marriage.

Unfortunately, the chapters on “pastoral perspectives” (ch. 6) and “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness” (ch. 8) are often problematic, even contradictory.

Many of those divorced and in “a new union,” says Francis, have “proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins”.

This curious statement is followed up by a footnote that casts direct doubt on the realistic possibility of such couples abstaining from sexual relations — by referencing a passage from Gaudium et Spes that has nothing at all to do with those divorced and civilly remarried. Other footnotes also puzzle.

There are constant calls for “discernment” and references to impediments and problems that mitigate responsibility and culpability, to the point that one wonders if any married person has ever really committed an actual sin.

Yes, married couples face serious challenges, but they are also moral agents who possess free will. Just as free will is essential to good novels, it is integral to the drama of salvation history, and “each marriage,” as Francis notes, “is a kind of ‘salvation history’.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report and co-editor of Called to be Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, published by Ignatius Press.