Newsweek's Meacham on GMA: 'God's Rottweiler' Remarks 'Heavy-Handed' and 'Clumsy'

On Monday’s "Good Morning America," anchor Diane Sawyer spoke with "Newsweek" managing editor Jon Meacham about the controversy over a centuries-old quote employed by Pope Benedict XVI in a speech on faith and reason.

Protests, violence and threats against the Vatican and representatives of the Catholic Church have erupted since the Pope’s speech, where he used a quote from a Byzantine emperor, Manuel II. The Pope has since clarified his remarks, saying that it is not his own view that the prophet Muhammad’s contribution to the world has been “things only evil and inhuman.”

Sawyer found the use the quote “baffling,” and wondered if the Pope’s decision to insert it into his speech was “an attempt at provocation” with Muslims. Meacham, for his part, found the Pope’s speech to be a “heavy-handed” and “clumsy” attempt at starting a dialogue with the Islamic community. Meacham then brought up Pope Benedict’s reputation among some as “God’s Rottweiler” as head of the Vatican office charged with enforcing of Catholic doctrine during the papacy of John Paul. (ABCNews.com carried a story with the headline "'God's Rottweiler's' First Crisis.")

Sawyer asked Meacham why, “in this climate,” no Vatican aides would have tried to stop the Pope from using the quote. Meacham argued that leaders have “a hard time getting good advice” and that Benedict, being the author of his own speeches, “misjudged” any potential reaction to the speech.

Meacham then stated that Pope Benedict made a "mistake" in failing to mention any of the “tragic episodes” in Christianity’s history, including the not-so-recent 12th and 13th century Crusades and the Inquisition. Sawyer also deplored the loss of “moderates” in Pakistan and Turkey, who are now “forced” to come out against the Pope because of his remarks.

The full transcript follows below:

Diane Sawyer: "All right. Let's turn now to that outrage, the backlash in the wake of Pope Benedict's controversial comments about Muslims. Take a look at this. This is a live shot of the Vatican this morning, where we're told mingling among the tourists are security guards disguised as tourists. A beefed up security presence every place, including on the tops of the buildings this morning, because of the threats that have been issued. Well, joining us is one of the most respected observers of the Vatican and religion and Newsweek managing editor, Jon Meacham. It's good to have you here, Jon."

Jon Meacham, Newsweek, managing editor: "Thanks, Diane."

Sawyer: "I want to put this quote back up there again, because it's so baffling to a lot of us. To go back to the 14th century, to pull out a quote from a pope who says that Muhammad basically brought things that were only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. Was this an accident or an attempt at provocation?"

Meacham: "Well, I think it was an attempt to start a dialogue. I think it was a clumsy attempt. I think it was oblique. It was the beginning of a lecture in Germany. You remember, remember, Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI was a German professor. He was later caricatured, in many ways, as God's Rottweiler, when he was John Paul II's enforcer, in many ways--"

Sawyer: "Oh, that's right. Right."

Meacham: "--head of the congregation for the doctrine of faith. What I think he was trying to do is begin a conversation. He did it in about as heavy handed and misguided way as I think possible."

Sawyer: "But this is a very educated man. Someone around him must have said, wait a minute, in this climate, you want to say that?"

Meacham: "Well, he is the Pope. And, you know, as we all know, leaders sometimes have a hard time getting good advice. And so, he writes his own speeches, in many cases. He is often the smartest person in the room. I think that he really misjudged how these words would carry, and I think now for the Vatican to step back and say, well, we didn't really mean this, is, in fact, is, in fact, not very tenable a position, because as Jesus said, to whom much is given, much is expected. And the vicar of Christ has a large microphone."

Sawyer: "Let's look at that apology again, because, again it was carefully worded. He said, 'I am deeply sorry for the reactions--"

Meacham: "Right. Mistakes--"

Sawyer: "--in some countries.' The reactions."

Meacham: "As, as you know well, mistakes were made."

Sawyer: "That's right. The exit strategy."

Meacham: "It's, it's a, it's a, it's sort of a non-apology. He says he did not share the views. And I think what the great tragedy of this, is that this man has written a book on truth and tolerance, in which he says we must make distinctions between religion. He was laying out earlier in the speech, he said, you know, there's an early Koranic verse that says there must be no compulsion in religion. The problem is, if you are going to wade into these waters, which are essential waters in which to wade, absolutely--"

Sawyer: "In these times."

Meacham: "--you have to do it focused. You have to just say, this is a speech about Islam and Christianity and where we can come together."

Sawyer: "And a lot of people have said you have to also mention, that I think, in Christianity there are some really tragic episodes."

Meacham: "Yes. You know, in journalism we call it the 'to be sure' paragraph. You know, to be sure, we had the Crusades, Pogroms, forced conversions, the Inquisition. For him not to mention cases where Christianity has been used to justify violence was a mistake."

Sawyer: "Something else a number of people have said is that the, the sad part about this, in many ways, is that the moderates now, the Pakistan parliament, as we know, passed a resolution, voted a condemnation of him. And you have the Turkish government reacting to him. You have the Moroccans recalling their ambassador. So, the moderates are forced to weigh in against him. What does he have to do to turn this around?"

Meacham: "Well, I would, if I were the Pope, I think he needs to give a important, serious address about his view of Islam, historically. He can use this, why not use, use the moment as an opportunity and say, like John Paul II, who was the first pope to visit a mosque in Damascus in 2000, and in the three months after September 11th, John Paul said that Christianity and Islam will only clash when religion is perverted for political or ideological ends, that the religion itself is not intrinsically impure or, as Manuel said, evil or inhuman. If he could take this moment, he certainly has the world's attention, and lay out a cohesive and charitable vision of how we can co-exist, then perhaps some good can come of this."

Sawyer: "Use this moment, really, to discuss the issue."

Meacham: "Yes, to really--and not just, not--you know, what he did is he dropped this grenade at the beginning of the lecture, that was very interesting about faith and reason. But, trust me, if he had not had that in the first paragraph, you and I would not be sitting here discussing his lecture on faith and reason last week in Germany."