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Venezuela, The Catholic Church in


Located in extreme northern South America, the Boliviarian Republic of Venezuela is bordered on the north by the Caribbean Sea, on the east by Guyana, on the southeast by Brazil and on the west by Columbia. The Andes Mountains of the north fall to the Maracaibo Lowlands at the northwest border and to the llanos, or central plains, while the Guiana Highlands characterize the southeast part of the country. Flooding, rockand mudslides, and periodic droughts are visited upon the region. Venezuela, with its tropical climate moderating in the lowlands, produces corn, rice and some wheat; a variety of tubers; coffee, cacao, tropical fruits and vegetables. Next to oil, tobacco is the primary export crop; sugar, cotton and resinous plants, the basic industrial crops. Stock raising, which declined somewhat, together with the immense

resources of the sea and forests, are also a part of the national riches. Natural resources include petroleum, iron, gold, bauxite, diamonds and hydropower, with most petroleum produced in Zulia and Anzoátegui. Venezuela was the world's largest producer of petroleum by the 1920s; by 2000 it accounted for a third of the nation's gross domestic product.

History. Venezuela was seen for the first time by Christopher Columbus on Aug. 1, 1498. The region was named by Amerigo Vespucci, a companion of Alonso de Ojeda, Juan de la Cosa and Juan López Velasco, who discovered Lake Coquivocoa in 1499. Reminded of the city of Venice by the sight of native dwellings constructed on stilts atop the lake, he dubbed the region "Venetiola." New Cáadiz, the first Spanish settlement, was founded early in 1500 on the island of Cubagua, while on the mainland began the conquest and founding of cities such as Cumaná, which in 1520 was called New Toledo and later New Córdova, and Santa Ana de Coro, founded in 1527. Santa Ana de Coro became the starting point for the exploration and settling of the lands of what became in 1777 the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

In 1516 Cardinal Francisco Cisneros of Spain sent two royal decrees to the Hieronymite friars who governed Santo Domingo and its dependencies, requesting that they assist the Dominicans and Franciscans doing missionary work on the Gulf of Santa Fe, Chichirivichi and Cumaná. These documents referred to two missionaries killed by natives in reprisal for mistreatment by intruding conquerors. The missions established by the Church gradually evolved into towns, villages of converted natives and parishes with their own curates, and provided a means of freeing Venezuelan natives from the sadly famous encomienda, a kind of fief of the new Spanish masters.

Working in specified territories, groups of Observant Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Jesuits and to some extent Anchoritic Augustinians and Mercedarians each undertook missionary activities, the last two groups being established in the city of Caracas. The Observants worked for 160 years in the territory of New Barcelona, even going beyond the Orinoco River to the south. Founding hundreds of pueblos, the Capuchins evangelized

the llanos of Caracas, New Andalusia, Trinidad and Guayana as far as the Masaruni River to the east and as far as the Branco River to the south; also the upper Orinoco, the Meta, Maracaibo and the Guajira. The Dominicans were based at Apure and Barinas, where they founded 20 towns. The Jesuits were missionaries in the Orinoco region until their expulsion by Charles III. The cradle of those organized missions were La Concepción de Píritu and Santa Maria de los Angeles de Cocuisas in the mountainous regions of Guácharo. Indeed, no fewer than 347 towns owe their existence to the work of the missionaries, 54 missionaries giving up their lives for their faith between 1514 and 1817.

Development of Church Hierarchy. The first Venezuelan bishopric was created by Pope Clement VII on June 21, 1531, in the city of Coro. During the colonial period the development of the hierarchy was slow, and the see was raised to an archbishopric almost 300 years later, in 1803. The bishops not only organized the hierarchy in Venezuela and supervised ecclesiastical discipline but also contributed generally to the development of the country. González de Acuña, founder of the Tridentine Seminary in Caracas in 1673 (later renamed the Inter-diocesano de Santa Rosa de Lima), introduced safe drinking water to the city. Diego de Baños y Sotomayor called the synod of 1686. Juan José Escalona y Calatayud established the Royal Pontifical University in 1725. Pious Antonio Diez Madroñero was a zealous reformer. Mariano Martí, bishop of Puerto Rico, traveled over his extensive diocese in Venezuela from 1771 to 1784, becoming a pioneer in statistics, when he compiled his demographic analyses in the four-volume Relación de la visita general. Under the constitutions for the establishment of the Church organization in Venezuela, the first diocesan synod was held in Coro, on July 26, 1574, during the episcopate of Pedro de Agreda, a Dominican who governed the diocese from 1561 to 1579. The second synod was convoked in 1687 by Diego de Baños y Sotomayor, a Colombian, who governed the Diocese of Venezuela from 1683 to 1706.

Political Upheaval and Independence. The 19th century was characterized by political upheaval throughout much of South America. In 1806 the activities of Simon Bolívar and the Columbian Independence Movement resulted in the formation of Gran Colombia, an annexation of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador that resulted in Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain on July 5, 1811. By 1829 this alliance had collapsed, and the following year the newly independent Venezuela elected General José Antonio Páez as its first president. While Páez provided stable leadership, such was not the case with future administrations, which saw a proliferation of political violence under a succession of dictators. A democratic government was installed in 1881 that encouraged the growth of the Venezuelan economy, but dictatorial policies resumed from 18991935. The discovery of oil in the early 1900s did little to help the lot of the average Venezuelan, providing as it did an even greater incentive for government corruption.

As a consequence of the succession of politically unstable dictatorships that followed independence, the missions declined during the mid-19th century, though not without first having made their contribution to almost all of the supplies that supported the liberating armies for two years. The Rifle Regiment, which earned glory for itself at Ayacucho, was recruited among the native peoples of the Capuchin Reductions. Responding to growing concerns over the restoration of Venezuelan missions, on March 4, 1922 Pius XI canonically established the Vicariate of Caroní. During the 20th century the Salesians, Daughters of Mary, Sisters of Charity of St. Anne, Franciscan Sisters of Venezuela, Capuchin Tertiaries, Dominican Sisters of Granada and Missionary Sisters of Mother Laura were active in the country. The Little Brothers of Jesus worked among the Makiritar of the upper Caura, a diocesan mission of the Archdiocese of Ciudad Bolívar.

In 1959 Rómulo Betancourt assumed the presidency, ushering in a democratic era that continued into the next

century. Among the reforms enacted under subsequent governments was the abolishment of the Ecclesiastical Patronage Law, a form of patronato that had been inherited from the Spanish crown. A pact of mutual understanding signed by President Raul Leoni on June 30, 1964 replaced the patronato. By virtue of this pact, bishops were named by the pope; the practice of coexistence with the government in all aspects of ecclesiastical administration was maintained: and the apportionment established by law remained a subsidy in exchange for the property and tithes of the Church that the government incorporated into the national treasury.

Modern Venezuela. Venezuela enjoyed a period of economic prosperity during the 1980s, the result of a rise in oil prices, but this was followed by a period of increasing inflation. In the 1990s the Church, as well as the government, was hard pressed to address the marked increase in violent crimes due to South American drug trafficking. Austerity measures imposed by the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez were met by riots and several unsuccessful military coups before Pérez was ousted on corruption charges. New elections were held in November of 1998 and on Dec. 30, 1999 a new, controversial, authoritarian constitution was implemented under the coalition government of Colonel Hugo Chavez, whose reform agenda was intended to counter an economic downturn and a rise in social problems. Under the new constitution, which was opposed by many Catholics due to its lack of a prolife provision, the Directorate of Justice and Religion continued the longstanding policy of dispensing funds to the Catholic Church. However, public criticisms of certain government actions by members of the Church were met with an increasingly antagonistic response by military

intelligence by 2000. On his appointment as cardinal in 2001, Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco vowed to continue his intervention in political matters, despite such government efforts. "I have decided to defend the Church's right to participate actively in the construction of a just, reconciled society," Cardinal Velasco promised. Venezuelan bishops followed suit, issuing statements critical of President Chavez' unwillingness to address the growth of crime and poverty within Venezuela. Under such provocation, Chavez attacked Church affluence and referred to some members of the clergy as "devils."

Into the 21st Century. Despite the escalation of tensions between the Church and a government attempting to battle a host of social and economic ills, Catholicism in Venezuela remained the faith of the majority. By 2000 there were 1,149 parishes within Venezuela, with 1,308 diocesan and 1,111 religious priests working among the citizenry. In addition, 324 brothers and 4,346 sisters tended to education, health and other humanitarian needs, particularly among the rural poor. Education remained among the Church's main goals, reflecting centuries of dedication to this effort. From the founding in 1514 of the first rudimentary boarding school for the Guaikerí Indians through the establishment of the Royal Pontifical University of Caracas between 1721 and 1725, to the establishment by ecclesiastical decree of Andrés Bello Catholic University, the academies of the religious as well as the primary and intermediary parochial schools reflected the desire of the Church to collaborate with the government's continued initiative to provide education to its citizens. In 1999 the government allocated $ 1.5 million to Church-run school and social programs.

The Church continued to demonstrate a strong commitment to social welfare through Caritas Nacional, affiliated with the international organization, specifically in the pastoral apostolate, where movements such as Catholic Action, the lay apostolate, the Legion of Mary, the Christian Family Movement, the Catholic Education Association of Venezuela, the Federation of Parents and Representatives of Catholic Students, workers' clubs, farmers' leagues and the Venezuelan Association of Catholic Doctors improved the quality of life for all Venezuelans. Through the efforts of such organizations, the country was able to recover from a devastating loss of over 30,000 lives due to severe rains that caused flooding and landslides along the northern coast in December of 1999.

Bibliography: m. watters, A History of the Church in Venezuela, 18101930 (Chapel Hill, NC 1933). l. marrero y artiles, Venezuela y sus recursos (Caracas 1964), Annuario Pontificio.

[f. a. maldonado/eds.]

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