Without doubt, the appointment of Iglesia ni Cristo’s Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo as a Special Envoy for OFW concerns has stirred debate and controversy. Immediately, the topic of ‘separation of church and state’ is raised by both critics and neutral commentators. So it’s important to know what ‘separation of church and state’ really means and if indeed it has been violated by the INC leader’s appointment to a considerable position.
To answer this question I refer to my favorite expert on the Constitution, Fr Joaquin Bernas, SJ. He discussed what “separation of church and state” meant in a column that appeared on the Philippine Daily Inquirer in March 2010:
It is sometimes thought by some that separation of church and state means that church people should not get involved in the hurly burly of public and political life. In other words, they should confine themselves to the sacristy. But to understand the subject properly one must begin with what the Constitution says. The constitutional command says: “No law shall be passed respecting an establishment of religion . . .” Immediately it can be seen that the command is addressed not to the Church but to the State. It is the State, after all, which passes laws. The fundamental meaning of the clause is the prohibition imposed on the state not to establish any religion as the official state religion. We are familiar with the background of this prohibition. Under the Spanish Constitution of 1876, Catholicism was the state religion and Catholics alone enjoyed the right of engaging in public ceremonies of worship. While the Spanish Constitution itself was not extended to the Philippines, Catholicism too was the established church in the Islands under the Spanish rule. As the established church, or the official church, Catholicism was protected by the Spanish Penal Code of 1884, which was in effect in the Philippines. Thus, of the offenses enumerated in the chapter of the Penal Code entitled “Crimes Against Religion and Worship,” six specifically and solely referred to crimes against the Catholic church. We know that one of the immediate effects of the advent of the American constitutional system in the Philippines was the denial to the Catholic church of the privileged position it occupied under Spanish sovereignty. The Philippine Bill of 1902 “caused the complete separation of church and state, and the abolition of all special privileges and all restrictions theretofor conferred or imposed upon any particular religious sect.” The separation, in fact, came earlier than the Philippine Bill, which merely repeated the provision relative to religion in President McKinley’s Instruction, which, in turn, merely implemented Article X of the Treaty of Paris. The constitutional command, however, is more than just the prohibition of a state religion. That is the minimal meaning. Jurisprudence has expanded it to mean that the state may not pass “laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”
Also known as the ‘non-establishment clause’ it simply means that the government cannot pass a law that establishes an official religion or laws that favor any and all religions. Does the appointment of INC Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo as Special Envoy for OFW concerns establish Iglesia ni Cristo as the official religion? No.
Does the appointment favor Iglesia ni Cristo over all other religions? Not necessarily. There are other religious leaders appointed to various government positions and functions which are perfectly legal. Unless of course Manalo was appointed with the specific mandate of serving only OFWs that belong to Iglesia ni Cristo or he starts to behave and carry out his position catering exclusively to his INC brethren. In other words, the appointment is not unconstitutional. Technically speaking.
The controversies dwell on the politics aspect of the appointmen which was made in the aftermath of Duterte’s ordering of a deployment ban to Kuwait which in turn was made in response to the latest case of abuse suffered by Filipina maid Joanna Daniela Demafelis. Her dead body was found in a freezer a year over from when her family last heard from her in 2017.
Some would agree with Malacanan’s argument that Manalo was appointed because of the international network established by Iglesia ni Cristo’s global expansion program establishing congregations throughout the world wherever Filipino expatriates are found. INC is now celebrating its 50th year of global presence. Knowing that timing is everything in politics, it’s easy to say Malacanan has impeccable timing.
INC has welcomed the appointment, painting it as a recognition of its tireless efforts in helping Filipinos abroad. However, it cannot be denied that this assistance effort goes hand-in-hand with its global evangelical mission. That in giving assistance to Filipino abroad, it offers the opportunity of winning them over to join their congregation. In this endeavor, the INC is relentless. It is also in this vein, where concerns about giving the INC an advantage over other religions comes up as raised by Randy David:
Mr. Manalo’s new role will no doubt involve frequent travels abroad, something he has been doing as INC head. While the position carries no compensation, it is hard to imagine that the job will not entail expenditure of public funds. The law prohibiting this seems clear. “No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institutions, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, or minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.” (Art VI, Sec. 29 , 1987 Constitution) Even if the government refrains from allocating public funds for Mr. Manalo as he goes about performing his work as special envoy for overseas Filipinos—precisely to avoid violating this legal restriction—one can still argue that his official diplomatic appointment gives undue preference to his church. While other churches are not explicitly excluded from reaching out to Filipinos abroad, the official appointment certainly lends to the Iglesia Ni Cristo a special cloak of authority that belongs to officials of the state alone. And, this is so not just in relation to foreign governments, but, more particularly, when dealing with offices in the Philippine bureaucracy that have anything to do with the concerns of overseas Filipinos. We may have no reason to doubt Mr. Manalo’s readiness to serve the interests of all overseas Filipinos, irrespective of their religious affiliation. But, surely, there is something fundamentally wrong, and perhaps unconstitutional, when one church is placed in a privileged position to promote itself by virtue of the special access to the civilian bureaucracy that is conferred upon it.
Another important question: is Mr Manalo properly equipped for the role that is essentially diplomatic in nature? Being the head of a religious group with a global reach is one thing, dealing with foreign governments in an official capacity is a completely different proposition. With the intricacies of diplomacy and international relations, with all of its protocols, customs and even traditions, one cannot help but wonder what’s the reaction of the Diplomatic corps be like? How many other career diplomats have been by-passed by the appointment? These questions I leave to the experts.
Lastly, the appointment cannot be isolated from the open secret that politicians regularly seek the support of the INC because of its block-voting practice and in return, individuals it endorses gets appointed to various government posts. We go back to Randy David who has pointed it out clearly:
The Duterte administration seems to take this game a notch higher. It has dropped all pretenses concerning the link between religion and politics. Short of actually establishing the INC as its official church, this administration makes no attempt to hide the fact that the Iglesia, which supported the President in the last elections, is its favored church. Both seem determined to keep this partnership strong and enduring.
Mr Manalo’s appointment is unprecedented, while there have been other INC members, some with rank within the congregation, that have been in various government posts, he is the first Executive Minister to hold one. The implications on the inter-play between politics and religion would be profound. Note that a year from now, we will be electing 12 Senators that will shape the fate of the Duterte administration.
Disclosure: The blogger is a convert to the INC. His views and opinions are entirely his own.