History of Roman Catholicism in Venezuela
The history of Roman Catholicism in Venezuela dates back to the colonial period. Unlike the military, the Roman Catholic Church has not been a major political force in Venezuelan politics. The church has never been as prominent in Venezuela as it has in neighboring Colombia. In addition, that the Spanish clergy, in general, sided with their mother country rather than with the forces of independence, did not endear the church to the early Venezuelan patriots.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the ranking clergy had close ties with the governing conservative oligarchy, and the church played a dominant role in the educational system. The rise to power of the Liberals in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, ushered in a period of anticlericalism. The government of Antonio Guzmán Blanco virtually crushed the institutional life of the church, even attempting to legalize the marriage of priests. These anticlerical policies remained in force for decades afterward.
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that, under the influence of the Christian social movement that began to criticize the maldistribution of wealth, the church regained some of its former influence.
Roman Catholic laymen played a prominent role in the founding of COPEI in 1946, and the announced disapproval of the church contributed to the fall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958. In the 1960s, the involvement of the church in education and welfare increased and, although the church had no formal ties with COPEI, many believed that the support of clergymen and church-affiliated institutions contributed to the electoral successes of COPEI in 1968 and 1978.
According to some sources, the church in Venezuela has been weakened by a traditional lack of native vocations. Many priests serving in Venezuela are foreign-born (though currently the inclusion of foreign clergy seems to be encouraged by many bishops throughout the Catholic world, especially in the United States). Before the government of Hugo Chávez, charismatic Protestant churches began to proselyte successfully, especially among the urban poor, though this has not posed a threat to the church nearly as much as the new government of Hugo Chávez has, especially in relation to religious education in public schools and the running of the church's 700 religious schools.