The Pope was not giving a precise theological answer. However, he clearly implied that atheists can possibly go to heaven. And that is my theological opinion also.
An atheist can enter the state of grace by a baptism of desire. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of formal baptism. The act of love in question must be true spiritual love, in full cooperation with grace. But it is possible. And by entering the state of grace in this way, the atheist has love, faith, and hope. He has faith in love, truth, justice, mercy, etc. — faith in the things that are of God. And this is an implicit type of faith in Christ and in God.
I can’t judge the soul of the father of that boy. And I notice that the Pope cleverly avoided giving a direct answer, so that he would not have to judge that particular atheist’s soul. But in general, an atheist who loves others selflessly can go to heaven. This father’s act of having his children baptized, could well be an indication of his implicit faith.
So there is nothing too controversial in the Pope’s words and deeds here. The Church has not decided this question, about the extent of an implicit baptism of desire, and how this might apply to non-believers. But the Pope’s position is not heretical; it is a tenable faithful opinion.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.