In the years preceding the papacy of Leo XIII, Church and state relations were often polemical. For his part, Leo engages the state in a manner that affirms the important role of political leadership but still manages to have a critical edge. He is concerned with both the poverty that has resulted from the Industrial Revolution and the socialism that is being proposed as a solution. He explains that humans are tainted with sin and therefore proposes that political theories promising the removal of all suffering can only be misleading. Despite these and other critiques, Leo acknowledges the need for state leadership and therefore encourages reform rather then revolution.
Leo indicates how the Church can contribute to social issues. He writes that the equality of persons comes not from similarity in talent but from redemption in Christ. Different members of society have different talents, all of which should be used for the eternal glory of God. Leo explains that a Christian framework also qualifies the condition of poverty. Because Christians view poverty as a virtue, the focus concerning material goods is on the use rather than the accumulation of goods. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the removal of material poverty is not the final end of Christian faith, Christians are called to assist the poor by living in accordance with the virtues of mercy and charity.
Leo discusses principles that remain central to Christian social ethics, such as the right of workers to associate and the right to private property. He argues that worker organizations can advocate and provide personal assistance for workers in a manner that the state is unable to do. Leo’s affirmation of the right to private property is a central claim of his work. If workers have the incentive of private property and the allotment of a just wage, they can live frugally and seek to acquire the stability that comes with owning land. Such a context provides an environment of ingenuity and diligence, which in turn is good for workers, employers, and the state. Leo’s reflections provide fundamental principles that still speak to contemporary Christian leaders who can apply Leo’s general insights in their own specific diocesan contexts.