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In the D&D5E Player's Handbook, the Paladin's description states that they

"learned to draw on divine magic and cast spells as a cleric does."

The cleric is capable of ritual casting, and thus it would seem as though the paladin should be capable of ritual casting, since the Paladin's spellcasting information lists only the differences between it and the cleric class. According to specific beats general, it would seem that a Paladin should be capable of ritual casting unless it is explicitly mentioned to not be the case.

There is a sage advice where Jeremy Crawford answers a question about whether the ranger can ritual cast, but the answer was that rangers lack the ritual casting class feature. Here's where we get to the part where I disagree with applying that logic to paladins. According to the class description for rangers,

The ranger harnesses the power of nature to cast spells much as a druid does.

In my interpretation, "much as a druid does" is different than "as a druid" because the "much as" implies there is not complete overlap in the way the two classes practice magic. So why is the general consensus that Paladins can't ritual cast without taking a feat to do so?

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RAW, paladins cannot cast ritual spells as ritual

In the Spellcasting chapter in the PHB, under Rituals:

To cast a spell as a ritual, a spellcaster must have a feature that grants the ability to do so. The cleric and the druid, for example, have such a feature. The caster must also have the spell prepared or on his or her list of spells known, unless the character's ritual feature specifies otherwise, as the wizard's does.

Rituals, PHB, p. 202

As an example of a spellcasting feature that does mention it, we might as well look at the cleric's:

Ritual Casting

You can cast a cleric spell as a ritual if that spell has the ritual tag and you have the spell prepared.

Spellcasting, PHB, p. 58

The paladin's spellcasting feature (pp. 84-85) does not mention this anywhere, yet it does explicitly describe many things that are also described in the cleric's spellcasting feature description (p. 58), such as how to prepare spells at the end of a long rest, what spellcasting focus you use, etc.

If this stuff was supposed to be "assumed" from the cleric's spellcasting feature, why spell it all out again? The "Spellcasting Focus" part in particular is worded exactly the same in both the cleric's and the paladin's spellcasting feature.

Also note that it would have to be spelled out again anyway if paladins were meant to be able to ritually cast their spell, because the cleric's version specifically mentions "cleric" spells, not "paladin" spells, so that would cause confusion ("but I have this cleric spell via the Magic Initiate feat, surely I can ritual cast it", etc).

Descriptive wording

The quote you have extracted, "learned to draw on divine magic and cast spells as a cleric does", I don't think so much importance should be placed on the exact wording of "as a cleric does", since they clearly do not cast spells like a cleric.

If anything, the ranger/druid comparison is actually more similar, since they at least both cast using Wisdom. Paladins, by contrast, cast using Charisma, not Wisdom like a cleric, so if anything, they actually cast spells less like a cleric than a ranger does compared to a druid.

The Ritual Caster feat can get around this to some extent

You mentioned a feat in your question; you probably already know what that feat is, but just in case, it's the Ritual Caster feat (PHB, p. 169). However, since you must choose the spell list of a full caster when you take this feat, you still wouldn't be able to ritually cast paladin spells, even if the spell has the ritual tag. I imagine in this case, it would make sense to choose the cleric spell list, since their spell list has a lot of crossover with the paladin spell list.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Alternatively, another way to parse that quote is rather than "learned to draw on divine magic and [cast spells as a cleric does]", perhaps consider "[learned to draw on divine magic and cast spells] as a cleric does", meaning that they way they learn it is similar, not the way they cast it (if that makes sense). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 16:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with the interpretation in your comment. Clerics learned to draw on divine magic, and to cast spells (well, presumably they're casting spells by drawing on divine magic, so it's one continuous idea); paladins learned to do the same. Arguably, a comma before "as a cleric does" (and "much as a druid does", for the ranger) would have avoided this confusion. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 15 at 6:58
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Unfortunately, paladins cannot ritual cast

There are four classes that can ritual cast, as default: Bard, Cleric, Druid & Wizard. Each of these classes, under the heading ‘Spellcasting’ has the following text:

Ritual Casting

You can cast any bard spell you know as a ritual if that spell has the ritual tag.

Paladins do not have this section in their Spellcasting text – so they cannot ritual cast.

If that's true, what does the text mean when it says that paladins ‘cast spells as a cleric does’?

Well that’s slightly opaque, the two classes do have a number of similarities, such as preparing spells in a similar way.

However, it cannot mean, as you’ve argued ‘the Paladin's spellcasting information lists only the differences between it and the cleric class’. I’m afraid that assertion does not stand up to scrutiny.

One proof of this, if needed, can be found in the fact that the spellcasting sections of Cleric and Paladin both contain the following text:

Spellcasting Focus

You can use a holy symbol (see chapter 5, “Equipment”) as a spellcasting focus for your [paladin/cleric] spells.

As this is exactly the same for both classes it would not need to be repeated, by your argument.

Additionally, I’d argue that the PHB is simply not meant to be used this way. By your logic, to fully build your paladin you’d have to scrutinise and cross compare the rules text of the cleric with that of the paladin – this would add excessive complication to character creation.

Ritual casting is fun, why’s the paladin been so hard done by?

It hasn’t, well not exclusively anyway. Neither Sorcerers or Warlocks can ritual cast be default either, and they’re full casters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Either way, +1 for "However, it cannot mean, as you’ve argued ‘the Paladin's spellcasting information lists only the differences between it and the cleric class’. I’m afraid that assertion does not stand up to scrutiny." \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think NathanS's comment on his own answer does a good job of parsing the "as a cleric does" sentence. Clerics learned to draw on divine magic, and to cast spells (well, presumably they're casting spells by drawing on divine magic, so it's one continuous idea); paladins learned to do the same. Arguably, a comma before "as a cleric does" (and "much as a druid does", for the ranger) would have avoided this confusion. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 15 at 6:58

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