“POPE declares gossiping is a plague worse than Covid” – so ran the headlines earlier this week after the Pontiff went off script during his weekly address delivered from St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. In his remarks the Pope warned of the impact of gossip and lies in destroying communities.

It’s not the first time the Pope has had strong words to say about the potential impact of gossip. Back in 2016 he spoke of the explosive impact of rumour and lies upon communities, urging followers: ”If you get an urge to say something against a brother or a sister, to drop a gossip bomb, bite your tongue! Hard!”

At other times the Pontiff has described gossip as “rotten” “poison” and “criminal”. “It destroys, rather than exalts the image of God present in others... Gossiping is terrorism because the person who gossips is like a terrorist who throws a bomb and walks away, destroying; they destroy with their tongue, they don’t make peace.”

Almost predictably there has bene a pushback against the Pope’s comments, not least form those who have made an art of it, such as one former newspaper diary columnist who defended gossip as a virtue.

At their best, newspaper diary columns give a wider audience to comments made to select audiences, such as a former Bishop of London who accepted an invite to an event on the promise of some delightful GnTs only to discover the reference was to Gender Neutral Toilets rather than gin and tonics.

But at their worst, diary columns simply rehash gossip and rumour, often with spite, seeking to appeal to our worst aspects rather than encourage our best.

In the internet age, gossip and unsubstantiated rumour has become commodified in fake news. Whether it be in the elections or referenda we now know that there are those with vested interests in outcomes who engage in fake news – or lies to give it its proper name – in order to sway the thinking and actions of electorates. But the boldness of lying isn’t just for the internet. It can also be found on the sides of buses. Who remembers £350m a week for the NHS ?

The Gospel text set for last Sunday, when the Pope made his remarks, was from Matthew 18 and contained Jesus’ advice to those who feel that someone else has sinned against them, including the instruction to first go and sort it out directly, between the two of you in order that relationships can be restored or even redeemed in the consequence of wrongdoing. It’s the opposite of dealing with such issues by slandering someone who you feel has done you wrong.

We are all aware that the long term impacts of Covid can lead to irreparable harm for those who have had it, and destroy communities in the toll it will take on everything from economies to relationships. Fake news and gossip can do exactly the same.

Perhaps the Pope got it right after all.