To combat the rising divorce rate, the Roman Catholic diocese here now is requiring a six-month wait before couples can marry with church sanction.

The waiting period begins when the couple informs a priest of their intention to marry.

The diocese here is one of a number in the country that have such required engagement periods.

(In the Washington, D.C., area, the diocese of Arlington has had a 90-day waiting period for a little over a year, and the diocese of Washington recently began to require that couples wait three months.)

The policy here was put into effect July 1 by Bishop James S. Rausch. It differs from some others in also requiring couples to take part in a counseling program designed to make them confront their expectations about marriage.

Developed by a task force of priests, nuns and lay people, the policy was introduced at a time of concern among all denominations about the divorce rate in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. Last year the county granted a record 13,167 divorces, up 3 percent from 1977. In the same year, 14,865 couples obtained marriage licenses.

Although Rausch concedes that the six-month waiting has generated criticism -- and that he originally preferred a three - or four-month wait -- he does not feel six months is unreasonable.

"You know, really, there's another way of putting that. You can simply say we ask a couple to inform us six months before their marriage of their intention. They generally inform the reception hall that they are having a reception at least that much ahead of time," he said.

Clergymen and counselors blame an influx of out-of-state immigrants, a casual lifestyle and the state's no-fault law for the divorce rate. However, few have proposed solutions as sweeping as those proposed by the bishop.

"People were jumping into marriage on the basis of infatuation rather than knowledge of one another and the obligations of marriage," Rausch said, "So I set up the task force to study how we might strengthen the preparation process because I felt that was where the most weakness was evident."

Rausch says that when he began reading cases of Catholic couples who applied for marriage annulments, he concluded "that what people were doing was preparing for a wedding rather than a marriage. I just felt we had to do something very substantive to change the trend."

The new policy, says, diocese spokesman Jim Jennings, is designed to "give a couple a fighting chance to understand better what the commitment is they are making before they get themselves tangled up in Hollywood romanticism rather than long-range commitment."

Under the policy, both partners are given a 143-question "premarital inventory" -- originally developed by Episcopalian priests -- that probes attitudes on interests, philosophy, religion, marital readiness, finances, children and sexuality.

The responses are evaluated and follow-up sessions held with parish priests during the waiting period. Referrals to professional counselors at Catholic Social Services are made in cases where, for example, pregnancy is a factor.

Another component of the premarital program involves weekend or evening encounter sessions where couples share dialogue about marriage. The sessions are held in the context of Catholic religious perspective.

"I think the marriage problem is a very common one around the country and I think bishops are addressing it in a variety of ways," said Rausch, who worked with the National Conference of Bishops in Washington before coming to Arizona two years ago.

Although conceding that some other dioceses have implemented various portions of similar counseling programs, Rausch is confident that within the Catholic church "there will be a greater trend toward a longer waiting period as a result of what we did if what we did works. And from all appearances it will work rather well."