Question: I saw it in a number of places that Pope Francis stated that atheists can go to heaven? Did he really say this? How can it be?
Answer: The claim that the Pope spoke of atheists being saved received wide coverage.  It seems that the Pope was the victim of somewhat lose reasoning on his own part, and of journalists’ ignorance of Christian terminology. His statement is available on the Radio Vatican website, and speaks of atheists being “redeemed,” but makes no mention of their “salvation.” It seems that many journalists equated the two terms. Christ died for the redemption of all mankind, but individuals are saved by belief in Jesus Christ and His teachings, Baptism, and a life in conformity with Jesus’ teachings—an atheist would hardly qualify.
What Pope Francis seems to be saying is that all men, being created in God’s image and likeness, have an obligation to do good, for everything God does is good. This obligation to do good is enhanced by the fact of the redemption of mankind. If everyone strives to do good—in what Pope Francis calls the “culture of encounter—we could enjoy world 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 don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.
“We will meet one another there” refers to meeting in a peaceful world—quite a bit less than a promise that we will meet in heaven.
Phrasing his words to atheists in religious terminology may have added to the confusion of those unable to distinguish redemption from salvation. After all, the terminology of religion does little or nothing to convince a man who doesn’t believe in God that he should do good for world peace.
Does redemption make the non-believer more capable of natural virtue than he would have been prior to the Redemption? Possibly, but such a question is best left in the arena of theology, and not in a brief homily at Mass.
Further confusion arose when a Vatican representative corrected the erroneous reporting by the news services. Whether out of genuine confusion, or in an effort to save face, the Vatican spokesman was reported to be correcting the Pope! 
In any event, we would remind the Holy Father of the timeless equation:
GOOD – GOD = O