He insists that his students call him "Charlie," and he won't even sign his letters to the archbishop with the standard "Rev." before his name. And by the looks of his natty sky-blue sport coat and wire-framed glasses -- not to mention the glaring absence of a starched white collar -- you'd never guess that this man is the most controversial Roman Catholic priest in the world today.

"If you read the Scriptures literally, you know that Jesus had everyone call Him by His first name and He never wore a collar," the Rev. Charles Curran is saying in his shoe box of an office at Catholic University. "I don't wear it around here, so I certainly would never wear it when I was called in to see the archbishop. It would be phony ... "

Curran is being called a lot of things these days -- from heretic to hero, blasphemer to reformer -- but the one thing not a blessed soul would challenge is the integrity and consistency of his theological convictions over the years.

From his daily attendance at mass as a young boy in Rochester, N.Y., with his mother, to his decade of training at various seminaries beginning at the age of 13, Curran has always prodded and pushed, questioned and, at times, doubted out loud.

Two weeks ago, it caught up with him.

In what has been widely viewed as a Vatican attempt to eliminate dissent against church positions, Curran, 52, was censured for his writings on sexual ethics -- specifically on divorce, birth control, homosexuality, sterilization and abortion -- and deemed no longer "suitable or eligible" to teach Catholic theology. He offered a compromise to avert the showdown, but essentially refused to alter one word of his work.

Today, his career -- and perhaps even his ability to exercise his priestly functions -- hangs by a thread.

"Of course, there is hurt here," he said last week, just hours after he had formally appealed the Vatican ruling. "I have given my life to doing this kind of thing and now they are saying I can't do it."

Whatever the Vatican's motives, the edict from Rome has divided Catholics here. It is the first time the censure action has been taken against an American Catholic theologian (though it has been used previously against outspoken priests elsewhere, most recently the Rev. Hans Kung of Switzerland in 1979). And the outpouring of public sympathy for Curran, some say, raises the possibility that the church has shot itself in the foot.

"This is an embarrassing moment for Catholics," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame. "Charlie Curran is considered a centrist ... He was singled out."

Taking the opposite side, a group of traditionalist Catholic theologians will hold a press conference today at the National Press Club in support of the Vatican's decision to fire Curran.

"We regret Father Curran cannot see things in the light of the faith he professes," says Joseph Murray, a layman from Rochester who has organized another group to oppose Curran.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that Curran, widely viewed as one of the nation's most influential theologians, is a popular man in the religious community, as well as with his students. His classes are always full, his classroom evaluations effusively favorable. When the school once before tried to take away his job, nearly 20 years ago, students and faculty forced a five-day campus shutdown. And in the past few months, Catholic University students have gathered 20,000 signatures nationwide in his support.

Curran's mail sits on a wooden desk in two neat piles these days -- more than a thousand pieces of it have come in since last month -- the "positives" and the "negatives." So far, he says, the positives have been leading about 12 to 1.

There are letters from housewives saying they left the church years ago over conflicts like this, from businessmen who vow to live their lives the way they see fit regardless of what they see as the church's archaic notions, from people who have derived strength from one of Curran's 16 books.

Much of the critical mail simply pleads for Curran to see the light. "There is some pious nun who keeps writing me in Latin -- but she keeps misspelling the words," he says, letting out a high-pitched laugh at the thought.

The life experiences of Charles Curran seem much more dynamic than the actual person, who has approached his recent challenge with remarkable equanimity.

He has a rather low-key, even-keeled manner about him: none of the table-pounding outrage that one usually associates with renegades. And those who have known him professionally and personally over the years say that he has always tried to work within the structure of church doctrines.

Curran himself likes to say with a smile that he has led "a very uneventful life."

"Some reporter asked, 'Why are you a Catholic?' and I said, 'I think because my parents were Catholic.' There was no odyssey, no searching, no questions."

He gives essentially the same answer when asked why, at age 12, he began thinking that the priesthood and a life of celibacy were for him. "I found this to be an attractive thing, the idea of being involved in some sort of spiritual service to people. There was no sudden falling off of a horse or that sort of thing. It just made sense to me."

But where is the emotion, he is asked, the spirituality, the intensity that has enabled him to wage a one-man battle against the Vatican at the risk of his job, his life's work, his faith?

"One of the things I always stress with students is that you have got to be self-critical," he responds. "I must constantly raise questions with myself.

"I have taken these positions [on sexual issues] over the years. I have not jumped into them. I'm convinced of these positions ... To be honest with you, all these things can happen out there, but I do have an inner peace that I can put up with all this other nonsense. In the Christian tradition, that's always been the sign of a good conscience."

Curran grew up in Rochester, the son of an Irish Catholic insurance adjuster and a German Catholic housewife. His mother was a daily communicant, while his father, he says, was more private about his worship. He attended seminaries throughout high school and college, and says his decision to become a priest just evolved until he was 22, when he was ordained.

Surprisingly, he says that he never really wanted to teach.

"I wanted to become a diocesan priest," he says. "I was sent to get my theological education in Rome in 1955, and in 1959 I got a letter while there saying they wanted me to get a doctorate in moral theology and come back and teach."

He didn't question that decision. "I mean, this was the old church. I get a letter from the bishop and that's how I get into the teaching of moral theology ... I never would have dreamt this would have all happened years later ..."

His first run-in with church authority occurred in 1967 when, after a few years on Catholic University's faculty, the school's trustees refused to renew his contract. Curran, who was 33 at the time, was given no reason for his dismissal, but his supporters believed that his writings on the new morality did not sit well with the conservative trustees.

The trustees' decision essentially shut down the university for five days, as most of the 6,000 students and faculty refused to attend classes in protest. Within a week of the campus boycott, Curran was reinstated -- and given a promotion.

How did he come by his controversial views? "I learned theology the old way and I taught it for a couple for years," Curran explains. "Then I did a lot of counseling with Catholic couples who were my own age at the time and experiencing these problems [with church positions on sexual issues]. It was talking to them that all of a sudden I really began to question the whole thing ...

"These are problems that everyone has dealt with," he says. "Everybody's family has had to deal with the issue of divorce ... A good number of families are increasingly having to deal with the question of a homosexual child. And in all of these things my responses are in no way in favor of any kind of promiscuity. We have to look at church teachings in light of these changes."

A year after the boycott, Curran was in trouble again, this time for his views on contraception. Leading a national group of theologians (including 20 from CU), Curran publicly questioned a papal encyclical, "Humanae vitae," that reaffirmed the church's stand against artificial birth control. The church accused him of "spreading propaganda" and "purposely causing confusion among the faithful."

Says Notre Dame's McBrien: "They have been watching him ever since. There is a school of thought around that says if it weren't for Father Curran ... the American Catholic community would not be practicing birth control. The alternative is to admit that the 85 percent of Catholic couples practicing birth control just do not abide by the papal teachings ... It's easier to blame him than the flock."

Curran continued teaching courses on sexual and social ethics, and writing scores of articles challenging the Vatican's edicts. He was informed in 1979 that he was under investigation by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

Thus ensued a six-year exchange of letters between Curran and various Vatican officials, charges and defenses, questions and not-too-acceptable answers.

Curran and his supporters assert that his teachings are far from extreme and that the church's edicts on sexual ethics should not be viewed as absolute.

He believes, for instance, that there are some circumstances under which artificial contraception, if "governed by the principles of responsible parenthood and stewardship," can be "necessary and legitimate."

As for sterilization, "the difference between contraception and sterilization is that sterilization by its nature tends to be more permanent, and therefore there should be a more permanent reason to justify it," he says. "For example, if someone has a permanent heart condition and they're told they should never become pregnant because it could take their life, then obviously sterilization would be necessary."

On homosexuality, Curran says: "I believe human sexuality has a meaning in terms of the person and personal relationship to another person. I talk about the irreversible homosexual, and I don't think you can say that this person should be called to celibacy. Homosexual relations within the context of personal relationships striving for permanency can be legitimate and acceptable for homosexuals."

Last March, Curran was informed by the Vatican that he must retract his teachings on these areas of sexual ethics or risk losing his license to teach theology at Catholic institutions. Curran offered instead to cease teaching sexual ethics and accept a public reprimand from the Vatican.

"All along I kept saying I could not at this time offer any substantive compromise because I cannot change the substance of my positions," he says. "And I don't think they can change the substance of theirs."

His offer was rejected, and on Aug. 18, Curran was informed in a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the church considered him unsuitable to teach Catholic theology, and that his license (or "canonic mission") to do so had been revoked. Curran says that Archbishop James Hickey, who also serves as chancellor of Catholic University, conveyed the news to him at the same time it was sent to the news media. "When I came back from the meeting, I already had a stack of calls from the press."

A few days later, the Associated Press quoted a Vatican spokesman as saying Curran could also be stripped of his priestly duties. The Vatican later said this would not occur.

Last weekend Curran filed a formal appeal to Hickey, which essentially requests that his dismissal from the faculty be reviewed by a board of his academic peers. If that board should recommend in his favor, a complex legal battle -- involving contract rights, academic freedom and church authority -- could ensue.

The case is complicated by the fact that Curran is part of a "pontifical" faculty at CU, under papal charter, with certain resulting obligations to the pope. Over the years, Curran's friends at other Catholic universities less subject to papal interference have tried unsuccessfully to hire him away. It was generally believed that he would have escaped Vatican censure had he chosen to leave.

It remains unclear to Curran whether his position as a 20-year tenured professor in general is threatened, or whether the university plans to find him another job. But the question of his theological teaching, he says, is far more important than whether he stays on campus.

"To people who disagree with me, I would ask them to recognize that without this critical function of theology the church itself is going to suffer greatly," he says. "What we really need is a historical sense, so that when people read history they know that over the years there has been all sorts of controversy like this -- and to realize in the end it's precisely this critical function which works to make a church a better place."

Through it all, he seems unperturbed by the prospect of joblessness.

"Nobody says I can't write," he says. "I just can't exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology here ... And I can always teach at a non-Catholic institution. It's important for me to keep this in perspective: I am not going to be out on the street."