The Vatican (search) said Tuesday requests for marriage annulments have been soaring, with one cardinal lamenting that some Roman Catholics view them as a kind of church-sanctioned equivalent of divorce.

On the heels of heavy criticism by Pope John Paul II (search) that annulments are granted far too easily, the Vatican made public a revised handbook of rules for Church marriage tribunals worldwide, reflecting 1983 changes in overall canon law.

"In the context of a divorce mentality, even canon annulment cases can be easily misunderstood, as if they weren't anything more than ways to obtain a divorce with the blessing of the church," said Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (search), in unveiling the handbook, called "Dignity of Marriage."

However, he said it was too early to tell if the updated guidelines would result in fewer annulments being granted, especially by tribunals in U.S. dioceses, which for years now have roughly accounted for two-thirds of the favorable rulings worldwide.

The church forbids divorce.

The new instructions "are aimed at ascertaining the truth" of whether a marriage actually existed, said Herranz.

Reasons for nullifying a marriage include impotence, refusal by a spouse to have children, and psychological immaturity at the time of marriage. Critics contend the last reason is frequently interpreted too widely.

"Results will be decided case by case," the cardinal told reporters asking about the U.S. situation, adding that he "can't predict" if annulments will be less easily granted.

Just 10 days earlier, John Paul told a Vatican tribunal that annulments were being granted too easily and warned against any corruption in the tribunals.

The 111-page rulebook, prepared on John Paul's orders, is heavily technical, for use by church tribunals.

Vatican officials said that church law about marriage hasn't changed. But the new guidelines compress relevant sections in hopes tribunals consulting them will be more quickly able to determine if a case has merits. The guidelines also urge bishops to set up marriage tribunals in the many dioceses which lack them, appointing competent lay people if necessary.

The previous marriage tribunal handbook dated back to 1936.

Citing statistics for 2002, Vatican officials said more than 56,000 requests for annulments were decided by local church tribunals worldwide, and 46,000 of them were granted. Of those, nearly 31,000 came in North America, compared with less than 9,000 in Europe and lower numbers for other continents.

"Requests have jumped enormously in the last decades, especially in countries of long-standing Christian tradition," said Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, a top Vatican court official who put some of the blame on "widespread secularization with its erroneous concepts of marriage."

In the late 1960s, for example, the number of annulments in the United States numbered in the hundreds.

Annulments are particularly attractive to divorced Catholics who remarry. The church bars divorced Catholics who remarry from receiving communion, unless they abstain from sex with their new spouses.

Herranz, asked if that ban would change, said the question had been studied carefully several times and indicated no change was in the offing.