Pope Francis' homily last Wednesday led some observers to think he was equating atheists with Catholics who are going to heaven.
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!" said Pope Francis.
"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."
However, a spokesperson assured Catholics last Thursday that atheists are still going to hell, reports CNN.
People who know about the Catholic Church "cannot be saved" if they "refuse to enter her or remain in her," said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman.
"Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ," the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.
"He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice. In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."
Initially, there was positive reaction to Pope Francis' statement.
"We are a community that is just trying to do good and live good lives, just like most communities are," Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist chaplain, told USA Today. ''His statement is an acknowledgment of that. It is welcome and it is gratifying."
Sources: USA Today and CNN