And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. -- Hebrews 11:6, ESV
Thus says Holy Writ. Pope Francis, it seems, disagrees.
It might be useful to compare the Pope's bizarre statement that atheists and agnostics may be saved with a letter on the same subject written in 1949 and promulgated by the Holy Office under the authority of Pope Pius XII, who himself was quoted on the subject in a previous post. Interestingly, the letter was written to correct Father Leonard Feeney's too strict interpretation of the maxim extra Ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation"). Fr. Feeney was ultimately excommunicated for his teaching that only Roman Catholics can be saved.
The letter states:
But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: "For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him"
It is manifest that the teaching of the Catholic church under Pius XII directly conflicts with that of Francis I on the subject of whether a person who does not believe that God exists can be saved.
Mon. Joseph Fenton of the American Ecclesiastical Review explains,
Now most theologians teach that the minimum explicit content of supernatural and salvific faith includes, not only the truths of God’s existence and of His action as the Rewarder of good and the Punisher of evil, but also the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation. It must be noted at this point that there is no hint of any intention on the part of the Holy Office, in citing this text from the Epistle to the Hebrews, to teach that explicit belief in the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and of the Incarnation is not required for the attainment of salvation. In the context of the letter, the Sacred Congregation quotes this verse precisely as a proof of its declaration that an implicit desire of the Church cannot produce its effect “unless a person has supernatural faith."
Ever since Pope Pius IX, the Catholic church has taught that Protestants and other non-Roman Catholic theists can be saved if they are "invincibly ignorant" of the character of the Roman church. But as far as I can determine, it never authoritively taught prior to Vatican II that a person can be saved without believing that there is a God. But while a minority point of view in Catholicism has taught the possibility of atheists being saved ever since Justin Martyr's bizarre conclusion that since Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos even atheists who live "by reason" can be Christians (a kind of Second Century version Karl Rahner's oxymoronic "anonymous Christian"), not even it was
Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes teaches that atheists can be saved. It has, as seen above, always officially taught the opposite.
Has the Catholic church changed its teaching on the subject? Or is the Pope in error? Let the rationalizations begin! In the meantime, it's truly a tragedy that the leader of the largest Christian communion on earth has chosen to undercut the efforts of every missionary on the planet so profoundly in the interests of making "nice-nice" with the enemies of the Faith at a time when they are attacking the Truth as never before.