"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Father, the atheists? Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. But I dont believe, Father, I am an atheist! But do good: we will meet one another there.
Despite its claims of clarity and conformity, Rome itself iws significantly subject to interpretations (including what is infallible and its meaning) to varying degrees, both allowed and that which is tolerated, and modern teaching often suffers from ambiguity.
Regarding atheists being saved, as reported here ,
Cardinal George Pell had suggested that there will be those who were atheists in this life who will be in heaven.
Cardinal O'Connor has something similar to say:
Q: And hell?
A: We're not bound to believe that anybodys there, let's face it. ...
Q: It is sometimes said that there will be a separate heaven for Bavarians because they would not be in a state of eternal happiness if they had to share heaven with the Prussians. Will Catholics and Protestants be together in heaven? A: I hope they won't be separate. I think that the divisions manifest here on earth will be reconciled in some mysterious way in heaven. I'm not thinking just of Catholics and Protestants, but people of other faiths and people of no faith. We are all children of God.
Q: So we shouldn't be surprised if we were to meet in heaven someone who was a Muslim or an atheist on earth?
A: I hope I will be surprised in heaven... I think I will be.
On this subject, one can teach along the line of, "To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life," (Romans 2:7) as meaning that obeying the light you have leads to more light ("And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given" -Mark 4:24).
So that, as with lost but pious Cornelius, one can hear "words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. " (Acts 11:14)
Yet Francis seems quite loose in his theology, or at least his expression of it, likely being much less of a theological than one who focus on the result. But doctrine comes first.
Here, he may not be teaching atheists can be saved because of their works, but from what we read (which is insufficient) he sounds that way, and which i also think is a manifestation of the institutional over reaction against sola fide, as if that teaches that the faith that justifies is not one that effects works.
Rome often emphasizes works and merit in such a way that it typically blurs the distinction btwn what actually appropriates justification, (which Rome allows can be without works yet still is based on one's holiness), and the resultant works which justify one as having true faith. And are rewarded due to God's faithfulness under grace, who rewards faith, (Heb. 10:35) though what the redeemed really deserve is the lake of fire. (Rm. 6:23; Rv. 10:14,15)
But faith and works go together, like light and heat, and Reformers emphasized the need for such faith, and evangelicals testify to greater commitment and faith that produces works and Biblical moral views than Catholics overall.
Jesus paid the penalty for all sin but redemption is not automatically granted. Only those who receive Him are children of God.
John 1:12-13 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.