Where Faith and Social Justice Interact

Spring Semester 2022 of The Word Magazine | Madeline Zukowski, DSHA '11
In mid-April, Nicolette Bardele, DSHA ’12, visited DSHA’s Catholic Social Teaching senior theology classes. Bardele shared her work as a PhD candidate at Harvard University, where her research centers around the criminal justice system. Only ten years ago was Bardele sitting in the same seats as the students she spoke to, with classes like Catholic Social Teaching inspiring her to make a difference in the world.
As a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, Nicolette Bardele, DSHA ’12, entered an area prison. Surrounding her were somewhat familiar faces from school, while other faces were unfamiliar, at least at first. She sat down for her first day of the course Rethinking Crime & Justice: Explorations from the Inside Out.

As the term inside out suggests, undergraduates from the University of Notre Dame attended this class at the prison alongside incarcerated people. Enrolled in a college-level class, both the incarcerated and the Notre Dame students shared the experience, with the same books, course work, projects, and small groups.

“It resonated with me, being able to talk to people with first-hand experience of the criminal justice system and being able to see the conditions myself of what a prison looked like,” Bardele said. “It just really piqued my interest.”

Her interest kept growing from there, and soon she was involved in a summer internship and further research related to criminal justice. Today, as a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University, Bardele is conducting research and writing her dissertation about inequality in the criminal justice system, specifically about how probation and parole operate differently across urban and rural counties in the Midwest.


While Bardele cites the “prison class” at Notre Dame as foundational to her interest in criminal justice, her passion for social issues started as a young child and expanded as she entered DSHA. She cites several aspects of her DSHA experience as impactful, ultimately leading her to her current area of study.

The foundation of her curiosity was laid during the second half of her DSHA career, during which she took Behavioral Science taught by Social Studies Faculty Chris Weiss, DS ’70. The course covered social sciences like psychology and sociology.

“That’s where I learned what sociology was,” Bardele said. “I knew that I was interested in social issues, but that is where I learned that there was an academic discipline for this that covered those things.”

During her final year at DSHA, Bardele was enrolled in Catholic Social Teaching, a course that allows students to probe the underlying causes of issues of social justice and peace, to explore how the principles of Catholic Social Teaching address these issues, and how to apply these principles to their future endeavors.


Bardele’s interest and background in Catholic Social Teaching allows her to be intentional and direct in making connections between her research and the themes of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching involves a set of guiding principles of how to navigate and respond to societal issues. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Social Teaching includes seven themes: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community, and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation.

Bardele views the themes of life and dignity of the human person and solidarity as most relevant to her work.

“I hope to do research that is rigorous, policy relevant, well done, and speaks to how to improve conditions for people to ensure their human dignity is upheld in the criminal justice system, where people may have been convicted of something, or have faced challenging circumstances in the past,” Bardele said.

Bardele argues further that those who interact with and are subject to the criminal justice system have richness and wisdom from which society could learn. “The people with whom I’ve spoken have incredible talents and wisdom to contribute to society.”


Conducting this type of research is how Bardele practices being in solidarity with those affected by the criminal justice system, but she understands that the Catholic Social Teaching theme looks different for everyone.

“Not everyone has to pursue research. Some people might be called to work in an organization or get involved with activism,” she said. “One of the many ways I stand in solidarity with people within the criminal justice system is through my work as a researcher and hopefully as a future professor, advisor, and instructor of students. I aim to shed light on these issues for other people who might be called to work in other ways or just in their own lives care about these issues and contribute.”

Bardele hopes to become a professor of sociology and emulate her teachers at DSHA. They were role models of “intelligent and knowledgeable but also compassionate and thoughtful educators,” she said. They were “engaged in these issues and wanted to bring them up in the classroom.”

“My time in high school was formative in pushing me to ask those bigger questions, think more carefully about the world and society I saw through some of my experiences, and want to pursue those academic questions that are still policy relevant or social-justice oriented,” she said.


A Campus Ministry officer her senior year and a member of the Rosary club that put her in touch with the Sisters of the Divine Savior, Bardele is quick to point out the Sisters’ commitment to justice and solidarity with the poor, and how that guides DSHA’s emphasis on direct community service. “Those service experiences were important in bringing social issues into focus as a matter of faith, and also instilling in me that service and advocacy could just be part of my day-to-day life and a key part of how I think about things, how I move through the world, and how I want to spend my time,” she said.

For Bardele, her work and her Catholic faith relate directly to one another, and she encounters her faith in her work daily. While her research focuses on a topic that can be dim, she is firm in her stance that as a Catholic, she must exist within the modern world.

“My academic work is not explicitly Catholic or theological, but it speaks to all the Catholic Social Teaching principles, and it is how I am living out my faith in a diverse world and in a secular society,” she said. “I am taking what I believe to be true, and what I think is important for me to do, and engaging with the world.”

Placing emphasis on the importance of the Catholic Social Teaching themes, Bardele believes they do and should underlie everything Catholics do, whether it’s researching the criminal justice system or doing what one can to help those in need.

“You can’t separate my belief system and my Catholic faith from dealing with this or other issues,” she said. “These fundamental principles apply to all these concerns that we see in society. The whole idea of Catholic Social Teaching is to try to develop a better society for everyone. It’s essential to bring that lens to these issues and not exclude faith or these core tenets of Catholicism from important discussions.”

Since starting her PhD journey at Harvard University in 2016, Bardele earned her master’s degree in sociology in 2019 at Harvard and hopes to finish her dissertation within the next two years. She will continue conducting research, performing statistical work with administrative data and interviewing probation and parole officers in the Midwest. In future research projects, she plans to interview people on probation and parole as well as incarcerated people about their own experiences.


“Nicolette had an extremely positive impact on me when she came to speak to our class. It was inspiring. She’s so passionate about her career and the life that she lives and the research she does. I learned a lot about the prison system and the struggles inmates go through. She opened our eyes to a more realistic point of view. Her work with parole and probation officers is well needed. Overall, I found a new way to look at prison systems and the treatment of inmates.”
Ariah Ortiz, DSHA ’22

“Nicolette gave seniors the opportunity to hear from someone like themselves—a former DSHA student from the Milwaukee community who feels called to help the disenfranchised. She gave them a perspective on some of the life stories of those she has spent time with—those who may be economically disadvantaged or have experienced family dysfunction, for example. These circumstances don’t excuse criminal behavior, but help explain it.”
Theology Faculty Judie Gillespie

“DSHA students are engaged in learning about and working to address various social issues already, and that definitely showed in my visit. They had great questions about my experience, current legislation, what they’ve seen in Milwaukee, and more.”
Nicolette Bardele, DSHA ’12


1. Life and dignity of the human person
2. Call to family, community, and participation
3. Rights and responsibilities
4. Option for the poor and vulnerable
5. The dignity of work and the rights of workers
6. Solidarity
7. Care for God’s creation
    • Nicolette Bardele, DSHA '12

    • Nicolette Bardele, DSHA ’12, spoke to Theology Faculty Judie Gillespie and Theology Faculty Lisa Metz’s Catholic Social Teaching classes about her research on April 13.

    • Pictured is Nicolette Bardele, DSHA ’12 (right), with a friend at Harvard commencement.


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  • S. Carol Thresher
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and commitment to Catholic Social Teaching. Congratulations. You found an important way to make your (our) faith come alive in a setting where some would be hesitant or intimidated. God bless you!

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