"I hope," says John McLaughlin, "that you're not going to call me the Watergate priest. I had nothing to do with Watergate except as a dwelling."

McLaughlin won that sobriquet because he was the Jesuit priest who defended Richard Nixon in public during the Watergate scandal. In the years since then, McLaughlin's life has undergone a sea change. He no longer lives at the Watergate complex. His $25,000-a-year job as speechwriter to Richard Nixon is only a memory. And in 1975 he left the active priesthood when he decided to marry Ann Dore.

"You have to experience the divestiture to understand and appreciate it," says McLaughlin, 51. "It was harder than I thought, but the pleasure associated with it was greater than I thought. I really had to face up to the fact that I loved Ann. I had to weigh the institutional considerations -- and I'm a great believer in institutions.

"But the package deal is that in order to be an active Roman Catholic priest you must be celibate, and to me that is intrinsically unacceptable. It's not justified by Scripture, by speculative theology or the fullness of tradition. In the first 10 centuries priests were married. Some of the apostles had wives. And there are hundreds of thousands of married men and women who would make good priests."

Today John and Ann McLaughlin work together in offices on K Street where they manage a public policy consulting firm. They recently bought a Capitol Hill home that is a renovated A&P store.

Before she joined her husband as a consultant in 1977, Ann, 37, was communications director of Union Carbide's Washington office and, earlier, public affairs director of the Environmental Protection Agency. She arrived in Washington in 1971 to work on the Nixon campaign. And prior to that she worked as head of the alumni office at her alma mater, Marymount College. That's where she met McLaughlin who -- as associate editor of America, a Jesuit journal of opinion -- came to give a speech in 1968. Two years later she worked in his unsuccessful Rhode Island senate campaign.

"Most men only have to weigh the girl," says Ann of the months her husband spent considering whether to quit the Jesuits and marry. The couple says it took about two years for him to adjust to his more secular lifestyle.

The McLaughlins' work "ranges from SALT II to bottle legislation," says John McLaughlin, who notes that "institutes, councils, associations and corporations are concerned about the future. The era of crisis management is passing." An apparel manufacturer retains the couple's firm to list the issues of the '80s that will affect the environment. Another company asks how the privacy issue will affect electronic fund transfers. "Almost all," says McLaughlin, "are trying to create a surprise-free environment by discovering what's likely to happen in the future."

McLaughlin might once have wished the same, considering the changes in his life that followed his signing aboard the White House during the Nixon years. (He likes to say he "was a Democrat until I learned how to read.") But so far hehs been a rarity among White House staffers of that time: he hasn't written a book.

"He's not as hungry as the rest of them," jokes Ann.

"You have to have the itch to write," says McLaughlin. "I'm going to write a book when I reach that point in life when I feel I can put into focus some of the dimensions of my background. If I do write a book, I think I'll treat my White House years much as Calvin Coolidge covered his presidency in his autobiography. That is, one chapter."