IT WAS A YEAR AGO today that a nuclear attack submarine was christened Corpus Christi, but the storm surrounding it has intensified. The name is Latin for "body of Christ," and many Christians, beginning with Thomas J. Drury, bishop of the Texas port city for which the ship was named, have taken vehement exception to having two of the most sacred words in the Christian lexicon on the hull of a warship.
A number of new personalities have joined the cast since Navy Secretary John H. Lehman Jr. answered Bishop Drury's April l981 letter of protest with quotations from Thomas Aquinas.
First of all there is Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), a former Peace Corps volunteer, who last Wednesday, with three Democratic cosponsors, introduced a resolution calling upon the Navy to transfer the name Corpus Christi to a "nonlethal" vessel such as a hospital ship.
It happened that Hall, who had no idea it was going on, submitted his bill on the 57th day of the "open-ended, penitential fast" of activist Mitchell Snyder, leader of Washington's Community for Creative Non-Violence and the Corpus Christi campaign. Snyder has been living on water to dramatize the "blasphemy" of the choice.
Hall, whose attention had been alerted to the issue by an Ohio chapter of the United Church of Christ, got a call from a co-worker of Snyder's suggesting the resolution. Hall, who identifies himself as Christian, agreed.
Snyder's previous fast, in 1978 on a local church issue, ended with a community decision to rush him to Sibley Hospital. His condition now is said to be "stable." The atmosphere at the Community's house on Euclid Street is reported as "heavy."
Hall's resolution set off a depth charge in the mind of Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. who has the Celts' exposed nerve to hunger strikes. He called Hall first thing Thursday morning to ask what could be done. They agreed the resolution could not be passed in time to avert the ultimate.
The speaker put in a call to White House aide Michael K. Deaver and told him he thought that Corpus Christi was a totally inappropriate name for a nuclear submarine, and pointed out that the administration was taking a "lot of needless flak" by not changing course.
Over at the Pentagon, the principal actor in the drama, the 38-year-old Navy secretary, was standing firm. The secretary, a Catholic and a brash hard-liner, put out word through his spokesman, Capt. John Dewey, that the name would not be changed or transferred.
Tony Hall, after putting in his bill, had attempted to negotiate with the secretary on the telephone late Wednesday afternoon.
"We are not trying to cut your feet off," he told Lehman. "But why are you taking a stand on this? You are offending people, so why not change? It's silly. There is no principle involved. You save stubborness for something really important, like the Falkland Islands."
Lehman rehearsed the familiar argument that the Corpus Christi is not a "nuclear launcher." Hall cut short the technical discussion. "It is not dispensing love and kindness," he said.
Lehman, according to Hall, said that he was "not inclined to change" because he would let down friends of the name. He said Pentagon mail was "heavily" in favor of standing up to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Greek Orthodox Church, the United Church of Christ, the Universalist-Unitarians, the United Presbyterians, the Reformed Church and other religious organizations who have objected.
But his real problem was something else. He sees the enemies of the ship's name as a Trojan horse for the antinuclear movement. He told Hall that the people who protest the ship's name "are the same people who are leading the drive for a cutback in nuclear weapons." (Lehman had identified them in a March speech as "a zealous, uninformed and unrepresentative minority.") "I am not sure we should give in to them now on this," Lehman told Hall.
Hall tried to disconnect the two issues for Lehman. The people offended by the ship's name were not necessarily against a strong defense.
"The last thing he said to me was that he was thinking about it," Hall says.
Lehman was not available for comment. Capt. Dewey said that Lehman had thought about it and had decided against any change.
He contradicted his boss in one respect: In the mail, which was "not voluminous," the antis had the edge.
Lehman had obviously also thought about Snyder. On April 14, he dispatched his friend and St. Joseph's College classmate, Hugh O'Neill, who is now a member of the Navy secretariat, around to Euclid Street to see the faster. The two men spoke alone for about 15 minutes in Snyder's bedroom.
No details of the conversation are available. Lehman, according to Dewey, regards Snyder's fast as "unwarranted, extreme and unilateral."
Gross offense to thousands of Christians and a man's life in the balance -- it seems a heavy price. But Lehman seems willing to pay it. "Peace through strength," you know.