Will Pope Francis’s popularity survive the discovery that he will not shun tradition?

Pontiff emphasised forgiving and forgetting, but in the Google age is anything forgotten?

Browsing internet coverage of World Youth Day in Rio, one link stopped me short. Wonkblog, the award-winning Washington Post blog, had published a meditation on forgiving and forgetting prompted by some of Pope Francis's remarks?

Ezra Klein, a leftie agnostic who has been a successful writer since his early 20s, is the blog editor as well as a columnist. Klein was briefly notorious for hosting a closed Google Groups forum called JournoList, confined to left and liberal journalists and commentators.

He ended it after the inevitable happened – a damaging leak of some of vitriolic comments made about conservatives in the supposed privacy of the closed group.

Pope Francis got Ezra Klein thinking with this: "I'd like to add that many times we seem to seek out the sins of somebody's youth and publish them. We're not talking about crimes, which are something else. The abuse of minors, for instance, is a crime. "But one can sin and then convert, and the Lord both forgives and forgets. We don't have the right to refuse to forget . . . it's dangerous. The theology of sin is important. St Peter committed one of the greatest sins, denying Christ, and yet they made him pope! Think about that."


Klein responded that the pope’s remarks set “a bar for mercy that few of us reach”.

In the Google age, nothing is forgotten. He added, “Washington is particularly obsessed with digging up decades-old indiscretions and embarrassment in order to humiliate people running for office or serving in government.”

Not just Washington. Digging up damaging material on opponents has been around as long as politics, but it is now systematised in quite a chilling fashion.

'Oppo dumps'
Klein talks about "oppo dumps", the practice of maintaining files of potentially damaging material on political opponents, and then releasing them to news outlets to inflict maximum harm.

There are also “black ops”, whispering campaigns designed only to undermine.

Klein points out that while there is not a lot of mercy in the “oppo dumps”, there can be a lot of page views or points in the polls in them. He also suggests Washington, instead of concentrating on the pope’s words about gays, needs instead to think about the fact that “this is a town where forgiveness is cheap but forgetting is rarely available at any price”.

It is interesting on at least two levels: first, the implications of living in a world where indiscretions or mistakes can never truly be forgotten; and, second, that the pope has the ability to generate this kind of reflection in an American policy wonk.

The internet has enormous power. I am not talking about the highly disturbing instance of say, a politician who persists in posting obscene images while trying to resurrect his political career, but the kind of tactics routinely employed now even in our own presidential election, where a tweet was enough to start a cascade that derailed a candidate.

I don't think Klein has it quite right when he says forgiveness is cheap, however. Forgiveness has become an ever rarer commodity, and the sheer viciousness of much online commentary must have had an influence on that.

Again, verbal attacks are not particularly new. The Atlantic published a piece called "When Lincoln was an idiot" in May, which pointed out that Abraham Lincoln as president was subjected to constant abuse from both north and south.

In fact, northern newspapers had called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger, which makes calling the president a “coward”, “yahoo”, “idiot” and “original gorilla” seem mild by comparison. (That was from the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan.)

Mark Bowden, author of the Atlantic piece, reflected on all the talking heads on television today, added the magnifying effect of a million comments on social media, and wondered would Lincoln have managed to achieve anything at all.

Which brings me back to Pope Francis. At the moment, he is getting a somewhat easy time from media, not, I suspect, because he is trying to impress them but simply because he is saying and doing what he believes.

In Rio de Janeiro, none of what he said could easily be pigeonholed as either right wing or left wing but it was an uncomfortable and challenging message.

He asked things such as whether, if the church is losing numbers, it is because it has lost touch with the radical nature of what Christ proposed?

Is it in danger of becoming an ideology, or a psychological comfort blanket, or an attempt to retreat to some imagined perfect church of the past?

How much do we really want to serve the poor?

There could be good reasons why the pope’s media honeymoon might end – if, for example, the expected reform of the curia does not happen.

More likely, though, will be a sudden swing in media opinion, a disappointment with the fact that he represents no radical break with Catholic tradition, but is simply better at communicating its implications.

If and when the honeymoon ends, the backlash may make his words on forgiveness and forgetting seem prescient indeed.