“Pope Francis used the first Christmas address of his papacy on Wednesday to make a broad call for global peace and an end to violence in Syria and parts of Africa, urging atheists and followers of other religions to join together in this common cause.”
“I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he said. “Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.”
Since his election less than a year ago, Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about atheists or “non-believers”. There are clear indications in his comments that he believes an atheist can be in a state of grace. If a non-believer were not in a state of grace, it would seem that he could not unite with believers in a sincere desire for true world peace. Persons who are not in a state of grace can cooperate with actual graces, but only partially and haltingly, until and unless they cooperate so fully as to enter the state of grace, at least by an implicit baptism of desire.
And if someone, anyone, is in a state of grace, and dies in that state, then he is certainly saved. All persons who die in a state of grace — which is the state of loving God and neighbor — will obtain eternal life in Heaven, perhaps after a short or long stay in Purgatory. So our holy Pontiff is indicating that non-believers can be saved. They can enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, and they retain that state if their rejection of belief in God is not an actual mortal sin. If they do commit any actual mortal sin, they can return to the state of grace by perfect contrition, even if that contrition is implicit.
In my view, the term “non-believer” includes atheists, agnostics, as well as persons who adhere to belief systems that do not include any discrete Divine being (e.g. Jainism). So “non-believer” is not synonymous with “atheist”.
Eventually, Pope Francis is going to advance beyond extemporaneous comments, to teach under the Magisterium concerning the salvation of non-Christian believers and non-believers. I’m certain he will teach that non-Christian believers and non-believers can be saved without converting. This teaching is entirely in accord with Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the past teachings of the Magisterium. But it is also in stringent discord with the current pseudo-dogmatic teachings of the conservative Catholic subculture. There will be an outcry and a rebellion from that segment of the Catholic population, and some of them (perhaps many) will choose to depart from the one true Church, partly for that reason.
If you wish to understand how non-Christians and non-believers can be saved, even if they know about Christianity and do not convert, see the detailed explanation in my book: