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Kanye’s Theological Argument with His Catholic Friend

September 9, 2020


Could Kanye West become a Catholic?

That possibility, which I posed in May of 2018 after a particular video surfaced on Kanye’s computer, sounds less and less unthinkable as time goes on. In 2019, Kanye announced his conversion to Christianity and released the film and album Jesus Is King with his “Sunday Service” choir. (His wife, Kim, and their children were also baptized into the Armenian Orthodox church.) Earlier this year, he released a raw new track and video titled “Wash Us in the Blood” with a more social and sacramental vision of faith and culture. And, more recently, his presidential campaign page includes not one but two prominent nods to Catholicism: an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the tag-line “Creating a Culture of Life”—a phrase coined by Pope St. John Paul II.

No doubt, the rich artistic and philosophical matrix of Catholicism—if someone could draw him more deeply into that world—would resonate deeply with Kanye West. But there are very old (and very stubborn) theological divisions between Protestants and Catholics that he, like any evangelical Christian, would eventually need to confront. And yet it sounds like he’s already started to do that—and with a very close Catholic friend.

In a recent interview, Kanye says the following:

“God was like, ‘Shut up. It is about my Son, Jesus Christ, and it is about what I have given you. My Son has died for you. It’s nothing that you can do more than this.’ And me and Don C be arguing about this because he’s Catholic. I’m like, man, I don’t want to argue with none of my Christian brothers about acts. You know? That’s the whole thing. Catholics are like—these acts that you perform. And we be feeling like, man, we got a special place in heaven. . . . And it’s like, bro: God had his Son die. . . . He’s already paid the price.”

The Catholic friend Kanye is referring to, by the way, is not just any old friend. Don Crawley, a fellow Chicago native and fashion designer, was Kanye’s former manager and label executive, and was also the best man at Kanye and Kim’s wedding. He was even arrested with Kanye in 2008 when the two of them got into a scuffle with paparazzi at LAX.

While he didn’t mention any other specifics of their back-and-forth, the two friends have clearly honed in on the central debate between their traditions stretching back five hundred years—namely, faith and works. All the classic Protestant objections to Catholicism—the pope, tradition, Mary, the saints, statues, priests, the sacraments, the Mass—ultimately come down to the same objection: that Catholics put a bunch of “works” between the Christian and Christ, between the sinner and salvation, whereas we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone.

Needless to say, there is a mountain of literature and commentary and debate on this question, and it would be impossible to explore all the various aspects of it here. But I think Kanye and those of like mind would find this brief homily from Bishop Barron on “faith perfected by love” especially illuminating. Bishop Barron makes the important point that while the Catholics don’t accept grace and faith alone, we do believe in grace and faith first.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (which, it should be noted, leans heavily on Scripture) teaches that Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross (CCC 606) completes and surpasses all other sacrifices (614) and redeems us (613); that we are initially justified by grace (1996)—a grace no one can merit or earn (2010)—through faith (1991); and that we cannot rely on our works to conclude that we are saved (2005). These passages of the Church’s official teaching text show there is actually a strong agreement between Protestants and Catholics on these fundamental points—and that the charge that Catholicism is a “works-based” religion is a false one.

The further question—and the true point of contention—is this: To work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12), is it also necessary to respond to and cooperate with grace in our lives? The Catholic Church says yes (1993). This doesn’t mean that we step in to supplement the price paid by the Son on the cross; it means that now we have to return on his superabundant investment by glorifying him in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). But acts of love don’t detract from or replace faith; they enflesh it and fulfill it. As the First Letter of John puts it: “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Bishop Barron offers a helpful metaphor in his homily: “If faith is the opening of the door, and indeed that’s right . . . then love is living in the house.”

Even if you don’t accept this theological perspective, it is interesting to turn back to the interview and watch what happens next. Kanye pivots to the same image of living in God’s house—and immediately underscores the importance of service and self-gift, not as a mere effect or evidence of faith, but as somehow the very heart of the matter. “We are living inside of his house,” Kanye says. “Life is a gift that he’s given us, and to be in service is the greatest thing that we could do for ourselves for each other and for God. . . . You’re happiest when you’re giving.” What Kanye is spontaneously articulating, it seems, is not faith alone, but faith perfected by love, which the Bible tells us is greater than faith (1 Cor. 13:3). It is a view of Christianity that—in instinct if not in form—is not so far off from Catholic theology after all.

Could Kanye West overcome this theological block? Might he one day cross the Tiber to “the true Silicon Valley of humanity”? As with countless other evangelical Christians today, I suspect the answer to that question depends not on a giant leap to what Catholicism is perceived to be, but an openness to what it really is.