The great Anglican Benedictine Church Historian Dom Gregory Dix wrote (in 1946) about episcopacy in the fourth century; and, of course, things may have changed a bit since then. But it seems to me that there is something quite fresh and thought-provoking about the following passage.
Dix has been writing about the old notion of the Bishop as the 'man of his own Church' and the damage done to this idea by the careerist notion of 'promoting' bishops by translation. He goes on:
"In the West, translation was still rare down to the eleventh century. But what proved far more unsettling to the old system was the new habit of holding frequent episcopal councils. The pre-Nicene bishop had had to decide his policy chiefly in conjunction with his own Church. He had been obliged to pay heed to his own council of presbyters, still in many ways the governing college under his presidency, and to take into account local wishes and the 'tradition' of his own Church. If he went to a council, he went to it to represent his Church and to voice its mind in deliberation with other Churches. In the fourth century this is altered. The bishop now decides policy not at home but away from home, in a gathering where the final decision rests with him and his brother bishops only. Councils assume the right of intervening in the self-administration of local Churches, and of over-riding local wishes and decisions. The bishop in synod no longer represents his own Church in the conference of a number of independent societies. Instead he represents the external controlling authority of the synod to his own Church; he is becoming the local representative of an ubiquitous organisation of government rather than the fount and centre of spiritual life in a local society ... The mediocrity of the Christian leadership ... is striking in all the records. The fact is that the new system promoted administrators rather than leaders. And there can be little doubt that it was the new irresponsibility of bishops towards their flocks which made possible the interminable distraction of the Church from her urgent missionary task by the long-drawn-out Arian struggle. The government and the bishops open to its influence were Arians or Arianising; the bulk of the lower clergy and laity were steadily orthodox, but had no real say in the innumerable councils of the time. Taking them by and large the bishops of this period are an unlovely lot, venal, unscrupulous, and intriguing ... there was probably much truth in the remark of Nazianzene, himself a Bishop, that he had never known a synod of bishops end in any good, nor one that did not increase mischiefs rather than ending them."
This reads to me very much like Blessed John Henry's survey of the same period! And I think Cardinal Ratzinger may have read those remarks of S Gregory Nazianzenus (in Epistula 120 alias 55) about councils! It is most telling that the 'mediocrity' of the modern episcopate became really acute in the years during and since Vatican II, when the bishops met together for long periods apart from their dioceses and passed a succession of resounding decrees about ... the importance of bishops! And now their increasing preoccupation is ... the importance of Episcopal Conferences!
Where have all the bishops gone? Long time passing! Where have all the bishops gone? Long time ago! Where have all the bishops gone? Gone to Conf'rences every one! When will they ever learn? When will they e...ver learn?