An international Vatican commission of cardinals and bishops has approved a new code of canon law that could make church annulments more accessible by formally recognizing "severe psychological immaturity" as grounds for the nullity decree.

Psychological incapacity of one or both partners has been the reason cited for marriage breakdown in 90 percent of annulment cases processed by American church courts. But because it is not currently cited in the code of canon law, a conservative tribunal is not required to recognize it as a grounds for annulment.

By writing the psychological grounds into the church's governing code, the commission would guarantee that every tribunal must recognize it as a basis for annulment -- a decree that enables a person divorced in civil proceedings to remarry within the good graces of the church.

The action also would bring the law into closer conformity with actual practice. Acceptance of the psychological grounds into the code for the universal church would be "an affirmation of what we've always said here in the United States," said the Rev. Daniel F. Hoye, associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and would be "consistent with the jurisprudence practices in the highest courts of the church."

The action by the 74-member commission, which has been meeting for the last eight days at the Vatican, is the next-to-the-last step in the church's 15-year process of revising its canon law code. It remains only for Pope John Paul II to accept and publish the code, which Hoye indicated is "a very good possibility."

Not accepted in the new code are some special procedures authorized more than a decade ago for the American church. One of these dispensed with the requirement that every annulment granted by a church court must be automatically appealed in a second court. The new code makes such appeals mandatory. "But the process to be used in judging these marriage cases has been greatly simplified," said Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati, a member of the commission.

The use of psychological incapacity as grounds for annulment of a marriage has developed out of a new understanding of marriage that emerged from the Second Vatican Council more than 15 years ago. By writing it into the new code, Hoye said, the church would be "codifying what's been going on for the last 15 years."

The American church has come under fire in some conservative quarters of the Vatican for granting too many annulments. Church officials estimate that nearly 90 percent of all annulments currently granted by the church take place in the United States.

Hoye conceded that the new code's requirement for a reexamination of every annulment granted might both slow down the annulment process and increase costs. "But we'll have to live with it," he said. "Canon lawyers are innovative and committed to the process and they are going to find ways to make it work."

Regulations regarding marriage and annulment are only a tiny part of the massive code of canon law that regulates activities of the church at every level. One provision in the current code, for example, bars clergy from "clamorous hunting," or hunting to hounds. That provision reportedly is deleted from the proposed new code.

The article governing annulments on psychological grounds states: "Incapable of contracting matrimony are those who are (1) affected by a serious illness or psychological disturbance, (2) have a serious defect in their ability to understand the reciprocal rights and duties of matrimony."