Pope Francis shocked the world recently by implying that atheists can go to Heaven if they are good. This is no shock to Catholics who are well versed in their faith. While the Catholic Church is the sole beacon from which one can be saved in Jesus Christ, she is not the only means Christ uses. Those who are good and through no fault of their own did not hear of Christ or His Catholic Church can go to heaven. However, this does not apply to atheists who do evil and uncharitable things, or those who reject God.
The Catechism states the following:
839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”325
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337
848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338
I personally believe that atheists of today exist because of a lack of proper Christian education. Some clergy, religious sisters and brothers, and lay people in teaching positions have abused their authority and taught ideas that are not Catholic. Because of this, people become atheists after not receiving proper knowledge in regards to faith. The faith they were taught is irrational and silly. Furthermore, scandals or bad behavior in the Church can contribute to someone becoming an atheist. We must all imitiate Christ and not our fallen human nature in order to prevent this. Nevertheless, atheists still have a desire to know of God. I write on this in my post, Why do Atheists care about God?
Pope Francis with his words is merely reminding us that Christ’s love has no limits. He will not deny those who do good even if they did not believe in Him or were never informed. However, those who do learn of Him and still reject Him are out of luck.