There is, of course, no single theory of ecclesial infallibility in the Catholic Church. This was true at Vatican I and is equally true today. While generalizations are always dangerous, I think it is accurate to say that most Catholic theologians today teach what might be called a minimalist position: when by either conciliar or papal action, the Church solemnly defines dogma, God will protect the Church from imposing serious error. There is no guarantee that the dogmatic definition is the best definition possible; hence the Church remains free to re-formulate its dogmas in order to render them more adequate to the truth to which they witness. I refer to Avery Cardinal Dulles's article "Moderate Infallibilism," A Church to Believe In
, pp. 133-148.
The Catholic position on papal infallibility is often presented as asserting the total independence of the Pope from the Church, and certainly the Vatican I formulation on papal infallbiility, which sought to exclude the error of Gallicanism, can be reasonably interpreted in this way. But this does not mean that "reception" has no place in the Catholic Church's understanding of dogma. While it is true that Catholic theologians have emphasized formal criteria when determining the magisterial authority of conciliar and papal dogmas, it is not true that only formal and canonical criteria matter. Speaking of papal dogmatic definitions, Lumen gentium
(25) states: "To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith."
What happens if the assent is indeed found wanting? What happens if a dogmatic definition is not received by the whole Church as faithfully speaking the truth of Christ? Avery Cardinal Dulles has suggested that were the Church to refuse her assent, then this can only mean that the Pope had failed to meet all necessary conditions for an authentic ex cathedra pronouncement:
It would not be proper to regard the pope as a mere mouthpiece for voicing what had previously been explicitly agreed to by the whole Church. As supreme pastor and teacher he has a special responsibility and charism for doctrine. But … it seems evident that definitions, if they authentically correspond to the charism of the papal office, will find an echo in the faith of the Church and will therefore evoke assent, at least eventually. If in a given instance the assent of the Church were evidently not forthcoming, this could be interpreted as a signal that the pope had perhaps exceeded his competence and that some necessary condition for an infallible act had not been fulfilled. (A Church to Believe In, p. 139)
Bishop B. C. Butler agrees: "It follows, of course, though Vatican II does not say so, that if a definition failed in the end to enjoy such a `reception' on the part of the Church, this would prove that the definition had not in fact met the stringent requirements for an ex cathedra pronouncement."
Catholic theology, in other words, does in fact acknowledge the necessity of "reception" in confirming the authenticity of dogmatic definitions. This element is rarely mentioned in apologetic and internet debates, for obvious reasons. Though the cited passage from Lumen gentium is speaking of papal definitions, it is clearly relevant, I believe, to the question of conciliar ecumenicity and conciliar dogmatic definitions. This is why the Catholic participants in the Catholic/Orthodox dialogue could agree with the following paragraphs in the Ravenna Statement:
37. The ecumenicity of the decisions of a Council is recognized through a process of reception of either long or short duration, according to which the people of God as a whole - by means of reflection, discernment, discussion and prayer - acknowledge in these decisions the one apostolic faith of the local Churches, which has always been the same and of which the bishops are the teachers (didaskaloi) and the guardians. This process of reception is differently interpreted in East and West according to their respective canonical traditions.
38. Conciliarity or synodality involves, therefore, much more than the assembled bishops. It involves also their Churches. The former are bearers of and give voice to the faith of the latter. The bishops' decisions have to be received in the life of the Churches, especially in their liturgical life. Each Ecumenical Council received as such, in the full and proper sense, is, accordingly, a manifestation of and service to the communion of the whole Church.
39. Unlike diocesan and regional synods, an ecumenical council is not an "institution" whose frequency can be regulated by canons; it is rather an "event", a kairos inspired by the Holy Spirit who guides the Church so as to engender within it the institutions which it needs and which respond to its nature. This harmony between the Church and the councils is so profound that, even after the break between East and West which rendered impossible the holding of ecumenical councils in the strict sense of the term, both Churches continued to hold councils whenever serious crises arose. These councils gathered together the bishops of local Churches in communion with the See of Rome or, although understood in a different way, with the See of Constantinople, respectively. In the Roman Catholic Church, some of these councils held in the West were regarded as ecumenical. This situation, which obliged both sides of Christendom to convoke councils proper to each of them, favoured dissentions which contributed to mutual estrangement. The means which will allow the re-establishment of ecumenical consensus must be sought out.
The Catholic position on dogmatic infallibility is actually more nuanced and interesting than is often presented in apologetic debates.