Not a wave-maker by temperament -- "I follow the rules" -- Bishop Thomas J. Drury, an Irish-born prelate who heads the Catholic diocese of Corpus Christi, Tex., has pitted himself and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops against Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.) and Navy Secretary John F. Lehman.

Since late April, Drury has been campaigning to persuade Tower and Lehman to get the name Corpus Christi removed from a nuclear attack submarine. The vessel, 360 feet long and christened April 25 at festive ceremonies at General Dynamic's Electric Boat division in Groton, Conn., was named by Tower, at the invitation of Lehman, after the city in the senator's state. Drury, acknowledging that Tower did not realize "the true meaning of his gesture," was offended because Corpus Christi means "Body of Christ."

Recently, Drury asked his brother bishops, who are stepping up their criticism of the nation's reliance on nuclear weapons, to join him in denouncing the naming of the sub Corpus Christi. Drury said that the boat "has the potential for massive destruction." All 270 bishops at the conference supported the resolution.

Capt. John Dewey of the Navy Department, a spokesman for Lehman, said that the secretary does not plan to rename the Corpus Christi. Dewey said that Lehman has been preoccupied with other matters and has not had time to "focus on the new development" of the bishops' denunciation.

Tower, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, through his assistant Linda Hill, that he would never do anything "sacrilegious." Hill said that the senator, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, had no intention of offending anyone.

"The intention," Hill stated, "was to name the submarine after the city in Texas that has a long tradition of connection with the Navy. It has a naval air station and it is an honor for the city . . . . Actually the senator was a little taken aback when the controversy first erupted."

Drury, a stocky white-haired man who says he voted for Ronald Reagan and believes the president is doing "fairly well" and is "trying very hard," said in an interview following the vote that the name that means Jesus Christ is to us very sacred.This is why people have objected."

Drury, with the conference now behind him -- the nation's 354 Catholic bishops represent a constituency that is more than 20 percent of the population -- believes that it "would be wise of the president to take note" of the protest. In a brogue he carried away from his native County Sligo in Ireland, Drury said the president is the commander in chief and "I'm an old-time chaplain in the USAF myself."

Until now, Drury's campaign has received much less attention than other peace activities of Catholic bishops. Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle has called for tax resistance as a way of protesting current military policies. Bishop Leroy Matthieson of Amarillo, Tex., called on the workers at a local munitions factory to think about seeking other work. All 12 Catholic bishops of Texas, including Drury, back him.

But neither of those prelates asked for the full support of the national conference.Drury perceived that naming a nuclear attack submarine after the "Body of Christ" -- however well intentioned -- had touched a sensitive nerve. In July, Rev. Richard McSorley, a Jesuit theologian and associated with the Catholic Worker house in Washington, wrote in The Catholic Standard that "we have a new type of blasphemy . . . . We call [the sub] Corpus Christi. What does God think of that? Do we think God feels honored by it? Are we honored?"

On Oct. 20, Drury wrote to Lehman suggesting that "you take steps now to transfer the name Corpus Christi to another type of sea craft, one, perhaps, that cares for the sick."

Lehman has not yet replied.