|Allegory of Salvation by Antonius Heusler|
I was asked a similar question by a friend the other day, when he asked me about his parents and how they do not believe. I answered that I could not possibly give the judgment that is God's alone to give in the case of individuals and that we are also told that God does not judge everyone in the same way. I told him he should pray for them. It was one of those moments when my 'conscience' afterwards told me, 'that was a little feeble'. The man himself was a Christian, if not Catholic, so I went onto give him a small summary of what we believe and how this does, in fact, differ to what non-Catholic Christians believe. I talked about sin, salvation and how we as Catholics wish to die in a State of Grace, in God's friendship, rather than in a State of Mortal Sin.
What did Jesus say about this?
'And he said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.' (Mark 16)
To me, that seems very clear and quite uncompromising. It sounds to me that if there is Salvation for atheists and agnostics, the Lord may know of it, but He has not told us of it, therefore we should keep proclaiming the uncompromising Faith that He Himself (and His Apostles after Him) preached. The Church's position on conscience followed in the light of natural reason offers hope of the Salvation of those who are outside of the Church and of Her Faith, but it is dangerous to point to this as being the 'end of the story'. Ultimately, we must encourage, for their eternal good, the conversion of all, including ourselves, since it would be sinfully presumptuous to suggest that all will go well with atheists, agnostics, or even those who are outside of the visible Church on Earth.
No 'Guarantees' of Salvation for Believer and Non-Believer
The Church doesn't have much more than that to go on and it doesn't give a 'blessed assurance' to believers either, since we do not know, but hope that our faith will bear fruit in good works and that we will persevere to the end, in a State of Grace and that the Lord, in His goodness will take pleasure in saving us.
Of course, it may be that there is a secret that God is withholding from the Church and the World (that He lets people who don't believe into Heaven through a back door out of His great mercy), but I would say it is kind of dangerous for the Pope to give people the idea that they can be saved without belief in Jesus Christ and His One Holy Catholic Church. I believe they call it 'endangering souls'.
I get the feeling when the Pope does this thing that his popularity with the World increases, but the atheists and agnostics don't feel a need to convert, 'because the Pope just told me I don't have to.' Just saying, 'I'm okay, you're okay' doesn't lead souls to repentance - something we all need in order to save our souls, but this is the sad development of years of water-muddying within the Church since Vatican II's 'spirit' was released into the parishes and Dioceses.
Popes Will Be Judged Also
Like all of us the Pope will have to give an account to God and we are informed by the Tradition of the Church that his judgment will be much, much more strict than will be ours, since he has repsonsibility for millions of souls in his care. Yep, Popes (and laymen) can go to Hell for all eternity. If Priests can go to Hell (and take many souls with them), and Bishops can go to Hell (and take many more souls with them), Popes too can go to Hell (and take a heck of a lot of souls with them).
Unfortunately, the more the Pope makes ambiguous statements like this, the more His own flock may begin to believe that ecclesiastical freemasonry won the day at his election. We shall wait and see, with baited breath, where the Holy Father clearly wants us, on the edge of our seats.
Pray for the Holy Father, for holy Priests and for holier Bishops, to whom has been entrusted the great duty of teaching the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith.